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Pros and Cons of "Why Nations Fail"
April 30, 2012 - 9:00pm

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Published March, 2012

I read Why Nations Fail this month while traveling in South Korea. The book was much on my mind as I looked across the DMZ at North Korea on the 38th parallel. South Korea, a country of about 50 million people, enjoys a per capital PPP (purchasing power parity) GDP of around $32,000. (The U.S. is $48,000 by comparison - wealthier but also with a less equally distributed income). In North Korea, the GDP per capita (PPP) is $2,400 - an incredibly low numbers that still probably understates how desperately poor (and hungry) are the people of North Korea.

Why should North Korea be so poor, and South Korea so rich?

The two countries share common cultural roots, geography, and access to natural resources. This is the question Acemoglu and Robinson attempt to answer in Why Nations Fail. They look at examples such as North Korea, as well as other natural experiments of societies that share similar exogenous traits (resources, climate, etc.) - such as the twin Nogales's in Mexico and Arizona.   

Acemoglu and Robinson's explanation as to why some nations are poor and others rich has everything to do with the elites. Poor nations are poor because the people who run these countries have made their subjects destitute in service of enriching themselves. 

North Korea can best be understood as being run by a criminal family. Mexico is so much poorer than the U.S. because of its history of being run by elites whose main goal was to extract wealth, and who did not need to redistribute economic production as for most of its history the country lacked pluralistic institutions that could check the power of the rulers.

This argument, that some countries are poor because the powerful keep them poor, stands in direct opposition to the arguments that Jared Diamond makes in Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond believes that the wealth distribution was largely pre-determined by immunity to disease (or lack thereof), access to domesticable livestock, and the raw materials and technologies to make advanced weapons.   

I am a huge fan of Diamond's writing, but Why Nations Fail has me thoroughly convinced that more deterministic view of development (as put forward by Diamond and others) is problematic. Why Nations Fail should definitely be on the syllabus in any economic history or development course, and on the bookshelf (physical or virtual) of anyone interested in global inequality, poverty, and why some nations are so much richer than others.

Should you invest the time to read Why Nations Fail? The book is 544 pages, or almost 18 hours by audiobook (my reading choice). Acemoglu and Robinson would have benefited from a strong-willed editor, one who was willing to push them to provide less historical detail (the book has a ton from around the world across numerous societies), and more analysis of the implications of their arguments for countries like China and India.   

I came away from Why Nations Fail thinking that if the argument is correct then China's long-term economic prospects might not be as good as we assume, and India's may be better.  But having spent time time in South Korea, which developed so rapidly at least partly under a repressive military regime, it is hard to square this conclusion with the recent facts of some of our fastest developing countries.  

Perhaps Acemoglu and Robinson next book will take outliers and implications, building on top of the theoretical foundations for development and inequality laid out in Why Nations Fail.

What are you reading?


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