WHY NATIONS FAIL
Daron Acemuglo and James A. Robinson
THERE ARE HUGE DIFFERENCES in living standards around the world. Even the poorest citizens of the United States have incomes and access to health care, education, public services, and economic and social opportunities that are far superior to those available to the vast mass of people living in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Central America. The contrast of South and North Korea, the two Nogaleses, and the United States and Mexico reminds us that these are relatively recent phenomena. Five hundred years ago, Mexico, home to the Aztec state, was certainly richer than the polities to the north, and the United States did not pull ahead of Mexico until the nineteenth century. The gap between the two Nogaleses is even more recent. South and North Korea were economically, as well as socially and culturally, indistinguishable before the country was divided at the 38th parallel after the Second World War. Similarly, most of the huge economic differences we observe around us today emerged over the last two hundred years.
Did this all need to be so? Was it historically—or geographically or culturally or ethnically—predetermined that Western Europe, the United States, and Japan would become so much richer than sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and China over the last two hundred years or so? Was it inevitable that the Industrial Revolution would get under way in the eighteenth century in Britain, and then spread to Western Europe and Europe’s offshoots in North America and Australasia? Is a counterfactual world where the Glorious Revolution and the Industrial Revolution take place in Peru, which then colonizes Western Europe and enslaves whites, possible, or is it just a form of historical science fiction?
To answer—in fact, even to reason about—these questions, we need a theory of why some nations are prosperous while others fail and are poor. This theory needs to delineate both the factors that create and retard prosperity and their historical origins. This book has proposed such a theory. Any complex social phenomenon, such as the origins of the different economic and political trajectories of hundreds of polities around the world, likely has a multitude of causes, making most social scientists shun monocausal, simple, and broadly applicable theories and instead seek different explanations for seemingly similar outcomes emerging in different times and areas. Instead we’ve offered a simple theory and used it to explain the main contours of economic and political development around the world since the Neolithic Revolution. Our choice was motivated not by a naïve belief that such a theory could explain everything, but by the belief that a theory should enable us to focus on the parallels, sometimes at the expense of abstracting from many interesting details. A successful theory, then, does not faithfully reproduce details, but provides a useful and empirically well-grounded explanation for a range of processes while also clarifying the main forces at work.
Our theory has attempted to achieve this by operating on two levels. The first is the distinction between extractive and inclusive economic and political institutions. The second is our explanation for why inclusive institutions emerged in some parts of the world and not in others. While the first level of our theory is about an institutional interpretation of history, the second level is about how history has shaped institutional trajectories of nations. Central to our theory is the link between inclusive economic and political institutions and prosperity. Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few and that fail to protect property rights or provide incentives for economic activity. Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, that is, those that distribute political power widely in a pluralistic manner and are able to achieve some amount of political centralization so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy. Similarly, extractive economic institutions are synergistically linked to extractive political institutions, which concentrate power in the hands of a few, who will then have incentives to maintain and develop extractive economic institutions for their benefit and use the resources they obtain to cement their hold on political power.
These tendencies do not imply that extractive economic and political institutions are inconsistent with economic growth. On the contrary, every elite would, all else being equal, like to encourage as much growth as possible in order to have more to extract. Extractive institutions that have achieved at least a minimal degree of political centralization are often able to generate some amount of growth. What is crucial, however, is that growth under extractive institutions will not be sustained, for two key reasons. First, sustained economic growth requires innovation, and innovation cannot be decoupled from creative destruction, which replaces the old with the new in the economic realm and also destabilizes established power relations in politics. Because elites dominating extractive institutions fear creative destruction, they will resist it, and any growth that germinates under extractive institutions will be ultimately short lived. Second, the ability of those who dominate extractive institutions to benefit greatly at the expense of the rest of society implies that political power under extractive institutions is highly coveted, making many groups and individuals fight to obtain it. As a consequence, there will be powerful forces pushing societies under extractive institutions toward political instability.
The synergies between extractive economic and political institutions create a vicious circle, where extractive institutions, once in place, tend to persist. Similarly, there is a virtuous circle associated with inclusive economic and political institutions. But neither the vicious nor the virtuous circle is absolute. In fact, some nations live under inclusive institutions today because, though extractive institutions have been the norm in history, some societies have been able to break the mold and transition toward inclusive institutions. Our explanation for these transitions is historical, but not historically predetermined. Major institutional change, the requisite for major economic change, takes place as a result of the interaction between existing institutions and critical junctures. Critical junctures are major events that disrupt the existing political and economic balance in one or many societies, such as the Black Death, which killed possibly as much as half the population of most areas in Europe during the fourteenth century; the opening of Atlantic trade routes, which created enormous profit opportunities for many in Western Europe; and the Industrial Revolution, which offered the potential for rapid but also disruptive changes in the structure of economies around the world.
Existing institutional differences among societies themselves are a result of past institutional changes. Why does the path of institutional change differ across societies? The answer to this question lies in institutional drift. In the same way that the genes of two isolated populations of organisms will drift apart slowly because of random mutations in the so-called process of evolutionary or genetic drift, two otherwise similar societies will also drift apart institutionally—albeit, again, slowly. Conflict over income and power, and indirectly over institutions, is a constant in all societies. This conflict often has a contingent outcome, even if the playing field over which it transpires is not level. The outcome of this conflict leads to institutional drift. But this is not necessarily a cumulative process. It does not imply that the small differences that emerge at some point will necessarily become larger over time. On the contrary, as our discussion of Roman Britain in chapter 6 illustrates, small differences open up, and then disappear, and then reappear again. However, when a critical juncture arrives, these small differences that have emerged as a result of institutional drift may be the small differences that matter in leading otherwise quite similar societies to diverge radically.
We saw in chapters 7 and 8 that despite the many similarities between England, France, and Spain, the critical juncture of the Atlantic trade had the most transformative impact on England because of such small differences—the fact that because of developments during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the English Crown could not control all overseas trade, as this trade was mostly under Crown monopoly in France and Spain. As a result, in France and Spain, it was the monarchy and the groups allied with it who were the main beneficiaries of the large profits created by Atlantic trade and colonial expansion, while in England it was groups strongly opposed to the monarchy who gained from economic opportunities thrown open by this critical juncture. Though institutional drift leads to small differences, its interplay with critical junctures leads to institutional divergence, and thus this divergence then creates the now more major institutional differences that the next critical juncture will affect.
History is key, since it is historical processes that, via institutional drift, create the differences that may become consequential during critical junctures. Critical junctures themselves are historical turning points. And the vicious and virtuous circles imply that we have to study history to understand the nature of institutional differences that have been historically structured. Yet our theory does not imply historical determinism—or any other kind of determinism. It is for this reason that the answer to the question we started with in this chapter is no: there was no historical necessity that Peru end up so much poorer than Western Europe or the United States.
To start with, in contrast with the geography and culture hypotheses, Peru is not condemned to poverty because of its geography or culture. In our theory, Peru is so much poorer than Western Europe and the United States today because of its institutions, and to understand the reasons for this, we need to understand the historical process of institutional development in Peru. As we saw in the second chapter, five hundred years ago the Inca Empire, which occupied contemporary Peru, was richer, more technologically sophisticated, and more politically centralized than the smaller polities occupying North America. The turning point was the way in which this area was colonized and how this contrasted with the colonization of North America. This resulted not from a historically predetermined process but as the contingent outcome of several pivotal institutional developments during critical junctures. At least three factors could have changed this trajectory and led to very different long-run patterns.
First, institutional differences within the Americas during the fifteenth century shaped how these areas were colonized. North America followed a different institutional trajectory than Peru because it was sparsely settled before colonization and attracted European settlers who then successfully rose up against the elite whom entities such as the Virginia Company and the English Crown had tried to create. In contrast, Spanish conquistadors found a centralized, extractive state in Peru they could take over and a large population they could put to work in mines and plantations. There was also nothing geographically predetermined about the lay of the land within the Americas at the time the Europeans arrived. In the same way that the emergence of a centralized state led by King Shyaam among the Bushong was a result of a major institutional innovation, or perhaps even of political revolution, as we saw in chapter 5, the Inca civilization in Peru and the large populations in this area resulted from major institutional innovations. These could instead have taken place in North America, in places such as the Mississippi Valley or even the northeastern United States. Had this been the case, Europeans might have encountered empty lands in the Andes and centralized states in North America, and the roles of Peru and the United States could have been reversed. Europeans would then have settled in areas around Peru, and the conflict between the majority of settlers and the elite could have led to the creation of inclusive institutions there instead of in North America. The subsequent paths of economic development would then likely have been different.
Second, the Inca Empire might have resisted European colonialism, as Japan did when Commodore Perry’s ships arrived in Edo Bay. Though the greater extractiveness of the Inca Empire in contrast with Tokugawa, Japan, certainly made a political revolution akin to the Meiji Restoration less likely in Peru, there was no historical necessity that the Inca completely succumb to European domination. If they had been able to resist and even institutionally modernize in response to the threats, the whole path of the history of the New World, and with it the entire history of the world, could have been different.
Third and most radically, it is not even historically or geographically or culturally predetermined that Europeans should have been the ones colonizing the world. It could have been the Chinese or even the Incas. Of course, such an outcome is impossible when we look at the world from the vantage point of the fifteenth century, by which time Western Europe had pulled ahead of the Americas, and China had already turned inward. But Western Europe of the fifteenth century was itself an outcome of a contingent process of institutional drift punctuated by critical junctures, and nothing about it was inevitable. Western European powers could not have surged ahead and conquered the world without several historic turning points. These included the specific path that feudalism took, replacing slavery and weakening the power of monarchs on the way; the fact that the centuries following the turn of the first millennium in Europe witnessed the development of independent and commercially autonomous cities; the fact that European monarchs were not as threatened by, and consequently did not try to discourage, overseas trade as the Chinese emperors did during the Ming dynasty; and the arrival of the Black Death, which shook up the foundations of the feudal order. If these events had transpired differently, we could be living in a very different world today, one in which Peru might be richer than Western Europe or the United States.