In fairly short order, such authoritarian economies start to wheeze: By throttling the incentives for technological progress, creativity and innovation, they choke off sustained, long-term growth and prosperity. (“You cannot force people to think and have good ideas by threatening to shoot them,” the authors note dryly.) Chinese growth, they argue, “is based on the adoption of existing technologies and rapid investment,” not the anxiety-inducing process of creative destruction that produces lasting innovation and growth. By importing foreign technologies and exporting low-end products, China is playing a spirited game of catch-up — but that’s not how races are won.
So how can the United States help the developing world? Certainly not by cutting foreign aid or conditioning it; as the authors note, you’d hardly expect someone like Mobutu to suddenly chuck out the exploitative institutions that underpin his power “just for a little more foreign aid,” and even a bit of relief for the truly desperate, even if inefficiently administered, is a lot better than nothing. But ultimately, instead of trying to cajole leaders opposed to their people’s interests, the authors suggest we’d be better off structuring foreign aid so that it seeks to bring in marginalized and excluded groups and leaders, and empowers broader sections of the population. For Acemoglu and Robinson, it is not enough to simply swap one set of oligarchs for another.
“Why Nations Fail” isn’t perfect. The basic taxonomy of inclusive vs. extractive starts to get repetitive. After chapters of brio, the authors seem almost sheepish about the vagueness of their concluding policy advice. And their scope and enthusiasm engender both chuckles of admiration — one fairly representative chapter whizzes from Soviet five-year plans to the Neolithic Revolution and the ancient Mayan city states — and the occasional cluck of caution.
It would take several battalions of regional specialists to double-check their history and analysis, and while the overall picture is detailed and convincing, the authors would have to have a truly superhuman batting average to get every nuance right. Their treatment of the Middle East, for instance, is largely persuasive, but they are a little harsh on the Ottoman Empire, which they basically write off as “highly absolutist” without noting its striking diversity and relatively inclusive sociopolitical arrangements, which often gave minority communities considerably more running room (and space for entrepreneurship) than their European co-religionists.
Acemoglu and Robinson have run the risks of ambition, and cheerfully so. For a book about the dismal science and some dismal plights, “Why Nations Fail” is a surprisingly captivating read. This is, in every sense, a big book. Readers will hope that it makes a big difference.
is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a former adviser to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice.