Review of “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

This book is legit, despite the lack of footnotes and in-line references. There is a detailed bibliography at the end, disguised as “Acknowledgments,” which also explains a lot of behind-the-scenes research that was omitted in the text. I was skeptical of the support for their hypothesis until I read this section in full. The book makes sense, as the summary of ten years of research by the authors, culminating in enough work to justify a book. This work is not fluff, nor is it entirely original, instead being what most scientific publications are: The authors worked for ten years on the subject of comparative economics and finally felt confident to publish their work outside scientific venues.

It was published in 2012 so it doesn’t reference the work of Francis Fukuyama, author of The Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay, which are not meant for the casual reader. This book, however, is written for a non-political scientist and is very readable and interesting.

The authors have simplified all the factors contributing to the economic success of nations into a simple idea: political and economic inclusiveness or extraction, the latter being typified by colonialism and kleptocracy as in modern Russia under Putin. They do a good job or explaining the importance of chance on the economic development of nations, repeating the mantra that things could have gone in a different direction in Britain in the seventeenth century but for a few lucky breaks.

The hypothesis is somewhat dark in that it doesn’t suggest a recipe for success; chance or, as they put it, contingency is a major factor in the development of political/economic systems (i.e. nations) and so they offer no quick fixes for developing nations. In fact, given the importance of previous conditions and chance, they don’t paint a very happy image of the future. But I’m reading between the lines there.

The bottom line is that, despite the uncertainty and continuous change inherent in democratic institutions, they are the best hope to break the cycles of history; resistance to change by the elites is the primary factor holding nations back, getting rich quick for a few (i.e. wealth inequality) being the curse of death to prosperity. Maybe they’re wrong, but their arguments are persuasive even to a skeptic like me.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn some not-so-well-known history and see the world through a different pair of glasses.

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