Government, Geography, and Growth

The True Drivers of Economic Development

According to the economist Daron Acemoglu and the political scientist James Robinson, economic development hinges on a single factor: a country's political institutions. More specifically, as they explain in their new book, Why Nations Fail, it depends on the existence of "inclusive" political institutions, defined as pluralistic systems that protect individual rights. These, in turn, give rise to inclusive economic institutions, which secure private property and encourage entrepreneurship. The long-term result is higher incomes and improved human welfare.

What Acemoglu and Robinson call "extractive" political institutions, in contrast, place power in the hands of a few and beget extractive economic institutions, which feature unfair regulations and high barriers to entry into markets. Designed to enrich a small elite, these institutions inhibit economic progress for everyone else. The broad hypothesis of Why Nations Fail is that governments that protect property rights and represent their people preside over economic development, whereas those that do not suffer from economies that stagnate or decline. Although "most social scientists shun monocausal, simple, and broadly applicable theories," Acemoglu and Robinson write, they themselves have chosen just such a "simple theory and used it to explain the main contours of economic and political development around the world since the Neolithic Revolution."

Their causal logic runs something like this: economic development depends on new inventions (such as the steam engine, which helped kick-start the Industrial Revolution), and inventions need to be researched, developed, and widely distributed. Those activities happen only when inventors can expect to reap the economic benefits of their work. The profit motive also drives diffusion, as companies compete to spread the benefit of an invention to a wider population. The biggest obstacle to this process is vested interests, such as despotic rulers, who fear that a prosperous middle class could undermine their power, or owners of existing technologies, who want to stay in business. Often, these two groups belong to the same clique.

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