Daron Acemuglo and James A. Robinson

Nations fail economically because of extractive institutions. These institutions keep poor countries poor and prevent them from embarking on a path to economic growth. This is true today in Africa, in places such as Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone; in South America, in countries such as Colombia and Argentina; in Asia, in countries such as North Korea and Uzbekistan; and in the Middle East, in nations such as Egypt. There are notable differences
among these countries. Some are tropical, some are in temperate latitudes. Some were colonies of Britain; others, of Japan, Spain, and Russia. They have very different histories, languages, and cultures. What they all share is extractive institutions. In all these cases the basis of these institutions is an elite who design economic institutions in order to enrich themselves and perpetuate their power at the expense of the vast majority of people in society. The different histories and social structures of the countries lead to the differences in the nature of the elites and in the details of the extractive institutions. But the reason why these extractive institutions persist is always related to the vicious circle, and the implications of these institutions in terms of impoverishing their citizens are similar—even if their intensity differs.

In Zimbabwe, for example, the elite comprise Robert Mugabe and the core of ZANU-PF, who spearheaded the anticolonial fight in the 1970s. In North Korea, they are the clique around Kim Jong-Il and the Communist Party. In Uzbekistan it is President Islam Karimov, his family, and his reinvented Soviet Union–era cronies. These groups are obviously very different, and these differences, along with the variegated polities and economies they govern, mean that the specific form the extractive institutions take differs. For instance, because North Korea was created by a communist revolution, it takes as its political model the oneparty rule of the Communist Party. Though Mugabe did invite the North Korean military into Zimbabwe in the 1980s to massacre his opponents in Matabeleland, such a model for extractive political institutions is not applicable in Zimbabwe. Instead, because of the way he came to power in the anticolonial struggle, Mugabe had to cloak his rule with elections, even if for a while he managed actually to engineer a constitutionally sanctified one-party state.

In contrast, Colombia has had a long history of elections, which emerged historically as a method for sharing power between the Liberal and Conservative parties in the wake of independence from Spain. Not only is the nature of elites different, but their numbers are. In Uzbekistan, Karimov could hijack the remnants of the Soviet state, which gave him a strong apparatus to suppress and murder alternative elites. In Colombia, the lack of authority of the central state in parts of the country has naturally led to much more fragmented elites—in fact, so much so that they sometimes murder one another. Nevertheless, despite these variegated elites and political institutions, these institutions often manage to cement and reproduce the power of the elite that created them. But sometimes the infighting they induce leads to the collapse of the state, as in Sierra Leone.

Just as different histories and structures mean that the identity of elites and the details of extractive political institutions differ, so do the details of the extractive economic institutions that the elites set up. In North Korea, the tools of extraction were again inherited from the communist toolkit: the abolition of private property, staterun farms, and industry.

In Egypt, the situation was quite similar under the avowedly socialist military regime created by Colonel Nasser after 1952. Nasser sided with the Soviet Union in the cold war, expropriating foreign investments, such as the British-owned Suez Canal, and took into public ownership much of the economy. However, the situation in Egypt in the 1950s and ’60s was very different from that in North Korea in the 1940s. It was much easier for the North Koreans to create a more radically communist-style economy, since they could expropriate former Japanese assets and build on the economic model of the Chinese Revolution.

In contrast, the Egyptian Revolution was more a coup by a group of military officers. When Egypt changed sides in the cold war and became pro-Western, it was therefore relatively easy, as well as expedient, for the Egyptian military to change from central command to crony capitalism as a method of extraction. Even so, the better economic performance of Egypt compared with North Korea was a consequence of the more limited extractive nature of Egyptian institutions. For one thing, lacking the stifling control of the North Korean Communist Party, the Egyptian regime had to placate its population in a way that the North Korean regime does not. For another, even crony capitalism generates some incentives for investment, at least among those favored by the regime, that are totally absent in North Korea.

Though these details are all important and interesting, the more critical lessons are in the big picture, which reveals that in each of these cases, extractive political institutions have created extractive economic institutions, transferring wealth and power toward the elite. The intensity of extraction in these different countries obviously varies and has important consequences for prosperity. In Argentina, for example, the constitution and democratic elections do not work well to promote pluralism, but they do function much better than in Colombia. At least the state can claim the monopoly of violence in Argentina. Partly as a consequence, income per capita in Argentina is double that of Colombia. The political institutions of both countries do a much better job of restraining elites than those in Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone, and as a result, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone are much poorer than Argentina and Colombia.

The vicious circle also implies that even when extractive institutions lead to the collapse of the state, as in Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, this doesn’t put a conclusive end to the rule of these institutions. We have already seen that civil wars and revolutions, while they may occur during critical junctures, do not necessarily lead to institutional change. The events in Sierra Leone since the civil war ended in 2002 vividly illustrate this possibility.

In 2007 in a democratic election, the old party of Siaka Stevens, the APC, returned to power. Though the man who won the presidential election, Ernest Bai Koroma, had no association with the old APC governments, many of his cabinet did. Two of Stevens’s sons, Bockarie and Jengo, were even made ambassadors to the United States and Germany. In a sense this is a more volatile version of what we saw happen in Colombia. There the lack of state authority in many parts of the country persists over time because it is in the interests of part of the national political elite to allow it to do so, but the core state institutions are also strong enough to prevent this disorder from turning into complete chaos. In Sierra Leone, partly because of the more extractive nature of economic institutions and partly because of the country’s history of highly extractive political institutions, the society has not only suffered economically but has also tipped between complete disorder and some sort of order. Still, the long-run effect is the same: the state all but remains absent, and institutions are extractive.

In all these cases there has been a long history of extractive institutions since at least the nineteenth century. Each country is trapped in a vicious circle. In Colombia and Argentina, they are rooted in the institutions of Spanish colonial rule (this page–this page). Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone originated in British colonial regimes set up in the late nineteenth century. In Sierra Leone, in the absence of white settlers, these regimes built extensively on precolonial extractive structures of political power and intensified them. These structures themselves were the outcome of a long vicious circle that featured lack of political centralization and the disastrous effects of the slave trade. In Zimbabwe, there was much more of a construction of a new form of extractive institutions, because the British South Africa Company created a dual economy. Uzbekistan could take over the extractive institutions of the Soviet Union and, like Egypt, modify them into crony capitalism. The Soviet Union’s extractive institutions themselves were in many ways a continuation of those of the tsarist regime, again in a pattern predicated on the iron law of oligarchy. As these various vicious circles played out in different parts of the world over the past 250 years, world inequality emerged, and persists.

The solution to the economic and political failure of nations today is to transform their extractive institutions toward inclusive ones. The vicious circle means that this is not easy. But it is not impossible, and the iron law of oligarchy is not inevitable. Either some preexisting inclusive elements in institutions, or the presence of broad coalitions leading the fight against the existing regime, or just the contingent nature of history, can break vicious circles. Just like the civil war in Sierra Leone, the Glorious Revolution in 1688 was a struggle for power. But it was a struggle of a very different nature than the civil war in Sierra Leone. Conceivably some in Parliament fighting to remove James II in the wake of the Glorious Revolution imagined themselves playing the role of the new absolutist, as Oliver Cromwell did after the English Civil War. But the fact that Parliament was already powerful and made up of a broad coalition consisting of different economic interests and different points of view made the iron law of oligarchy less likely to apply in 1688. And it was helped by the fact that luck was on the side of Parliament against James II.



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