In Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that elites promote stasis because change can undermine their positions in society. Elites uses their positions to channel wealth and income to themselves and protect those positions by erecting political and economic structures that keep others from prospering. Acemoglu and Robinson call these structures extractive institutions. In contrast, sustained economic growth must allow the creative destruction that flows from technological change. Only those political and economic institutions that allow participation by outsiders generate the innovations that create sustained economic growth. Acemoglu and Robinson call these structures inclusive institutions. Both extractive and inclusive institutions tend to create forces that perpetuate themselves, which is why it is so hard for poor countries, those with the most extractive institutions, to break away from the status quo and begin the process of growth. The bulk of the book consists of examples that develop and illustrate this theme.
An attraction of this thesis is that it is an extension of the most basic idea in economics, that people respond to incentives. When people have the opportunity to structure incentives to favor themselves, they usually will do so, which is why countries impoverished by elites are so resistant to economic growth. When one tyrant is overthrown, the usurper is usually just another tyrant who wants to use the system to enrich himself and his cronies. The thesis of this book is quite similar to that developed by Hernando De Soto in The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, yet De Soto is not included in the bibliography of sources.
The authors dismiss culture as a factor that explains differences in income level. They point out that the North and South Koreans had similar cultures, yet have had completely different growth paths. Yet within countries different cultural groups can have very different levels of success, and sometimes the successful groups are subject to discrimination. Perhaps the authors should have argued that cultural differences are secondary in explaining what happens to different nation states. Culture is a nebulous concept that is impossible to measure with any precision and thus does not fit readily into economic discussions. But the same can be said for the notion of institutions at the basis of Acemoglu and Robinson's argument.
One of the changes that opened up the economic system of the U.S. was the reforming of laws of incorporation that took place before the Civil War. Originally the granting of corporate charters was tightly controlled by the political process, creating the temptation to create economic rents. The reform of the process took politics out of the process, allowing anyone meeting a set of requirements to get a corporate charter. This change removed a major hurdle in organizing large businesses, and Acemoglu and Robinson completely ignore this development even though it fits into their narrative. (A book with a similar emphasis on the importance of institutions, Political Institutions and Financial Development, edited by Stephen Haber, Douglass C. North, and Barry R. Weingast, has a paper that notes that between 1842 and 1852 eleven states rewrote their constitutions to take the power of chartering corporations out of politics.)
Instead they highlight the anti-trust attack on the so-called robber barons of the late 19th century as a victory for inclusive institutions. They seem unaware that the pejorative term "robber baron" was popularized not in the 19th century but only in the 1930s or that the "monopolists" owned much of their success to exploiting the economies of scale that new technologies brought. The people who most objected to the so-called robber barons were not those who bought from them but those who could not compete with them, the rivals who were the victims of the creative destruction that the Carnegies and Rockefellers of the era unleashed.
Chapter 11 concludes with a section called, "Positive Feedback and Virtuous Cycles." Chapter 12 concludes with a section called "Negative Feedback and Vicious Cycles." Economists do not give the concept of feedback nearly enough emphasis, so perhaps the authors were unaware of what the definitions of positive and negative feedback are. Positive feedback tends to amplifying results while negative feedback dampens or stabilizes things. Hence, both vicious cycles and virtuous cycles result from positive feedback. The authors could have argued that negative feedback creates a stagnation or poverty trap, but a trap is not the same thing as a vicious cycle.
Acemoglu and Robinson give Venice as an example of a state that developed an inclusionary institution, the commenda, which set it on the road to growth and prosperity in ninth and tenth centuries. The commenda was a risk sharing agreement for trade missions that gave ambitious and talented outsiders a chance to prosper. Eventually, early in the 14th century, the elites chose stagnation by closing avenues of upward mobility. Although stagnation and decay are possible paths for today's developed nations, no attention is given to this topic. The omission may be because Acemoglu and Robinson are focused on why so many nations have failed to develop economically, and decay is best left for a different book (though they include one such book, Mancur Olson's The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, in the bibliography). Or perhaps they do not consider decline an important threat; their emphasis on the virtuous cycle of inclusive institutions supports this possibility.
One of the concepts that Acemoglu and Robinson stress is "contingent events," episodes that can break a pattern and send a nation down a path to different institutions. They repeatedly refer to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as the event that changed the trajectory for England, leading to a process that generated ever more inclusive institutions. In the post-World-War-II era the world underwent massive decolonization, which provided a host of contingent events sending countries on new paths. In almost all of these cases the new regimes made their institutions more exclusive rather than more inclusive, further impoverishing their countries. Acemoglu and Robinson blame the exclusionary institutions that the colonizers left behind for today's poverty in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. What they do not explain is why independence led to more exclusionary institutions rather than more inclusionary institutions.
On page 389 they write, "It is impossible to understand many of the poorest regions of the world at the end of the twentieth century without understanding the new absolutism of the twentieth century: communism." The irony of communism and socialism is that although their rhetoric about equality suggests that they will usher in inclusive institutions, the nature of socialism requires that it be highly exclusionary. Acemoglu and Robinson spend few pages developing this idea despite their declaration of its importance.
In the final chapter Acemoglu and Robinson look at foreign aid and come to the same conclusion that William Easterly
found, that it can often be counterproductive, reinforcing the power of the elites to maintain the status quo. However, they conclude that foreign aid is here to stay not because it is effective but because "many Western nations feel guilt and unease about the economic and humanitarian disasters around the world, foreign aid makes them believe that something is being done to combat the problems." (p 454) They also make the case that though China has been growing rapidly for the past few decades, that growth will soon slow down dramatically. They argue that some growth is possible under extractive institutions, and point to the USSR as an example. By massively investing in technology that had been developed by others, the USSR grew rapidly until the 1970s. At that point it had exploited what was possible with that strategy. For growth to continue, they would have had to allow creative destruction, but authoritarian and totalitarian regimes abhor creative destruction. Acemoglu and Robinson see the same process playing out in China. There is no rule of law, property rights are insecure, and the political trumps the economic. What is possible given their institutions is limited.
Acemoglu and Robinson end the book with a story from Peru where Fujimori and his crew tried to ensure their dominance. They paid off various officials and judges, but the really big payments were to the press. They recognized the key to control was control of the press--nothing else really mattered much. If Acemoglu and Robinson had not dismissed culture as unimportant, perhaps they might have played with the importance of the media in shaping culture, which in turn can limit what elites can do in the political sphere.
Update: Here is William Easterly's review of the book in the Wall Street Journal.
11 minutes ago