Why some countries go bust

An interesting article in the NY Times on why some countries go bust:

Over the centuries, proposed answers have varied greatly. Smith declared that the difference between wealth and poverty resulted from the relative freedom of the markets; Thomas Malthus said poverty comes from overpopulation; and John Maynard Keynes claimed it was a byproduct of a lack of technocrats.  …

Jeffrey Sachs, one of the world’s most famous economists, asserts that poor soil, lack of navigable rivers and tropical diseases are, in part, to blame. Others point to culture, geography, climate, colonization and military might. The list goes on.

But a different theory:

Now, in their new book, “Why Nations Fail,” Acemoglu and his collaborator, James Robinson, argue that the wealth of a country is most closely correlated with the degree to which the average person shares in the overall growth of its economy. It’s an idea that was first raised by Smith but was then largely ignored for centuries as economics became focused on theoretical models of ideal economies rather than the not-at-all-ideal problems of real nations.

I don’t see this as contradictory to what Adam Smith said, but complementary to it.

Consider Acemoglu’s idea from the perspective of a poor farmer. In parts of modern sub-Saharan Africa, as was true in medieval Europe or the antebellum South, the people who work the fields lack any incentive to improve their yield because any surplus is taken by the wealthy elite. This mind-set changes only when farmers are given strong property rights and discover that they can profit from extra production. In 1978, China began allowing farmers to benefit from any surplus they produced. The decision, most economists agree, helped spark the country’s astounding growth.

Absolutely. Those who for 100% state ownership should look at the massive difference it made in China to allow people to gain reward for their efforts beyond what the state mandated they should get.

According to Acemoglu’s thesis, when a nation’s institutions prevent the poor from profiting from their work, no amount of disease eradication, good economic advice or foreign aid seems to help. I observed this firsthand when I visited a group of Haitian mango farmers a few years ago. Each farmer had no more than one or two mango trees, even though their land lay along a river that could irrigate their fields and support hundreds of trees. So why didn’t they install irrigation pipes? Were they ignorant, indifferent? In fact, they were quite savvy and lived in a region teeming with well-intended foreign-aid programs. But these farmers also knew that nobody in their village had clear title to the land they farmed. If they suddenly grew a few hundred mango trees, it was likely that a well-connected member of the elite would show up and claim their land and its spoils. What was the point?

Which reinforces the need for clear property rights.

Acemoglu, Robinson and their collaborators did not come up with the idea that incentives matter, of course, nor the notion that politics play a role in economic development. Their great contribution has been a series of clever historical studies that persuasively argue that the cheesiest of slogans is actually correct: the true value of a nation is its people. If national institutions give even their poorest and least educated citizens some shot at improving their own lives — through property rights, a reliable judicial system or access to markets — those citizens will do what it takes to make themselves and their country richer. 

And this is why we should do what we can to improve educational outcomes for the “tail” and why we should encourage people from welfare into work.

This suggests, among other things, that instead of supporting one-off programs promoting health or agricultural productivity, the international community should focus its aid efforts on deep political and economic change.


Acemoglu and Robinson are on the pessimistic side of optimism about the United States’ chances of a resurgence. Congress, they told me, is too heavily influenced by the wealthy, and the advent of super PACs has only given elites more power. Yet Acemoglu surprised me when he said he was encouraged by the rise of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. While neither has an especially coherent or subtle economic agenda, both show that, however frustrated they might be, large numbers of Americans still believe they can influence the political process to improve their fortunes. Since the future of American economic health lies in its people, Acemoglu explained, as long as Americans believe they can influence the process, they will.

I think the future is fairly murky for the US.

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