Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
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Is it culture, the weather, geography? Perhaps ignorance of what the right policies are?
Simply, no. None of these factors is either definitive or destiny. Otherwise, how to explain why Botswana has become one of the fastest growing countries in the world, while other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence?
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it). Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities.
The economic success thus spurred was sustained because the government became accountable and responsive to citizens and the great mass of people. Sadly, the people of the north have endured decades of famine, political repression, and very different economic institutions—with no end in sight. The differences between the Koreas is due to the politics that created these completely different institutional trajectories.
Based on fifteen years of original research Acemoglu and Robinson marshall extraordinary historical evidence from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, the United States, and Africa to build a new theory of political economy with great relevance for the big questions of today, including:
- China has built an authoritarian growth machine. Will it continue to grow at such high speed and overwhelm the West?
- Are America’s best days behind it? Are we moving from a virtuous circle in which efforts by elites to aggrandize power are resisted to a vicious one that enriches and empowers a small minority?
- What is the most effective way to help move billions of people from the rut of poverty to prosperity? More philanthropy from the wealthy nations of the West? Or learning the hard-won lessons of Acemoglu and Robinson’s breakthrough ideas on the interplay between inclusive political and economic institutions?
Why Nations Fail will change the way you look at—and understand—the world.
Guest Reviewer: Charles C. Mann on Why Nations Fail
Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for The Atlantic, Science, and Wired, has written for Fortune, The New York Times, Smithsonian, Technology Review, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post, as well as for the TV network HBO and the series Law & Order. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he is the recipient of writing awards from the American Bar Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation. His 1491 won the National Academies Communication Award for the best book of the year. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
A few years ago, while I was researching a book on the history of globalization, I suddenly realized that I was seeing the same two names on a lot of the smartest stuff I was reading. The names belonged to two economists, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Much of their work focused on a single question: Why are poor places poor, and is there something we can do about it?
This is one of the most important questions imaginable in economics—indeed, in the world today. It is also one of the most politically fraught. In working on my book, I read numerous attempts by economists, historians and other researchers to explain why most of North America and Europe is wealthy and why most of Asia, Africa and Latin America is not. But these usually boiled down to claims that rich nations had won the game by cheating poor places or that poor places had inherently inferior cultures (or locations) which prevented them from rising. Conservative economists used the discussion as a chance to extol the wide-open markets they already believed in; liberal economists used it to make the attacks on unrestrained capitalism they were already making. And all too often both seemed wildly ignorant of history. I can’t recall encountering another subject on which so many people expended so much energy to generate so little light.
Acemoglu and Robinson were in another category entirely. They assembled what is, in effect, a gigantic, super-complete database of every country’s history, and used it to ask questions—wicked smart questions. They found unexpected answers—ones that may not satisfy partisans of either side, but have the ring of truth.
Why Nations Fail is full of astounding stories. I ended up carrying the book around, asking friends, “Did you know this?” The stories make it a pleasure to read. More important, though, Acemoglu and Robinson changed my perspective on how the world works. My suspicion is that I won’t be the only person to say this after reading Why Nations Fail.