Friday, May 11, 2012

Acemoglu and Robinson on Failure

As they got ready to publish Why Nations Fail, I suspect that Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson saw themselves as shooting at the big targets: Jared Diamond, or maybe Francis Fukayama. On that standard, I'd say they have reason to be disappointed. I think they've put together an interesting book, readable, and plausible in its argument, though not by any means the game-changer they might have thought it to be. Yet perhaps surprisingly, in a certain way they may have ended up with a book that is better than what they expected or wanted. 

First things first: it's hard to come to terms with a book entitled Why Nations Fail when you can't pin down a precise definition of “nations” or “fail,” or in particular, “why.” Given its pretensions, we have here, then, a remarkably casual book. The authors say they offer large a “theory,” although they concede that their “theory” is no great shakes at prediction. In particular, while they obviously harbor strong views as to what counts as failure, illustrated with examples, they really don't offer any insight into the process that brings it about.  We might better characterize  it as a “description,” a sketch of things that they like and don't like in large social organizations. Judged by this standard, it's affable, even convincing except insofar as it sketches a picture that you've been convinced by already.

They prefer, to be more precise, societies in which the worker is worthy of his hire; in which there are incentives for the production of new ideas; where there is flexibility and even fluidity as the polity responds to changing times—in short, to use their word, “inclusive.”  They're also hot for the old Schumpeterian show-stopper, "creative destruction"--my searcher says the phrase occurs 64 times--but again, it isn't really clear what they mean by it.  The people who "created" Venice, for example, weren't really "destroying" prior society; they were just a bunch of swamp rats who learned how to turn some coins through trade/piracy.  And the Europeans who introduced mass slavery in the New Wotrld may well have been "destroying" what went before but it would be odd to think of them as "creative.

On the negative side, A and R  don't like societies where elites entrench themselves and try to gobble up all the rewards, no matter who may have produced them, The catch-name here is “extractive.” You might think that “extractive"  had something to do with the pillaging of nonrenewable resources and in some cases here perhaps it does, although far more often it seems they are talking about the extraction of wealth from anyone else who might have a claim on it. Since “elites” in this context seems to mean “whoever wins the competition for the levers of power,” the proposition comes pretty close to definitional--an elite is by definition a person who excludes others from their just reward.   [As what is perhaps an aside: A and R never seem to make clear just why they are so down on the “extraction” of wealth from others—is is it because they are Kantians who want to treat people as ends, not means?  Or perhaps Utilitarians who believe that more entrepreneurship will get down if entrepreneurs enjoy a good payday? It is possible that A and R simply did not notice the distinction.]

Anyway, “inclusive” societies that institutionalize innovation and exterminate “extraction.” Against this “framework,” A and R discuss a great variety (40? 80?) of instances from the prehistoric Nafutians to the present-day (I hope not “posthistoric") Somalis. Some of these stories are familiar, some quite new (at least to me). It isn't always obvious why a particular story is in s particular chapter although if you go with the flow, this isn't a problem. At any rate,  the authors are at least insistent on what their theory is not: not merely geography and not just culture.  Hmph, maybe.  . It'll be a long time before you persuade me that the differences between Venice (say) and Chad have nothing to do with geography; nor that the differences between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent have nothing to do with culture (nor, come to think of it, Persians and Arabs in the Middle Eastern heartland, nor Muslims and Europeans in the Mediterranean). But the difference may not be obvious to A and R either: they seem to abandon the not-stuff whenever convenient as, for example, when compare/contrasting the experience of Spaniards in South America with that of the English in the North.

At this point, one might be tempted to say that one has read a lot of this before—in, for example, the seminal work of Douglass North. The authors will have none of it. They salute North as a distinguished forebear but they say that what they have added is “politics.” But once again, we are up against a problem of definition. Having pored conscientiously over the entire text, I haven't the least idea what precisely they mean by “politics,” unless it be “leadership,” or perhaps “the accident of leadership,” or perhaps more generally “accident.”

From their endnotes, it is clear that A and R have absorbed and (mostly successfully) repackaged a formidable amount of material, yet the general theoretic anemia helps to remind the reader of what they  have left out.  Unless I missed it, there is no mention of Richard Pipes and his superb account of "patrimonial" social order in Russia; nor of Kenneth Pomerantz and his searching comparison of China and the West, nor Martin van Otswald and his work on the social order of the military in Modern Europe.  Perhaps most important, they seem not to have considered what I would count as the runaway best book on modern nationhood--Charles Tilly's Coercion, Capital and European States.  As authors who want to include "politics" in their account of nationhood, it is hard to think of a better place to begin.

With limitations like these, how can one still count the book a success.  I'd put it this way: we're dealing with authors who come from a milieu where theory dominates.  As political/social historians in the academy, they come from a world where theory dominates: if you don't have a theory you are a mere popularizer, doomed to spend your weekends on C-Span with the likes of Doris Kearns and  Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley.  No self-respecting Ivy League professor wants. Better to propound any theory than to suffer obloquy such as that.  So now you've got two choices: either postulate a theory that is too rigid and formal to capture experience; or settle for one that is too weak to offer any new insight at all.  Given the choices, I'd say they are much luckier to have fallen (intentionally or not) into the second error.  At least it leaves them open to telling a bunch of really good stories.

Footnote:  The authors now have a blog, in which they answer some criticisms and offer some extensions of remarks.  It bids fair to become more interesting than the book itself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"you read all them books?" another old farmer asked me once as we passed one of my hand made bookcases in my farm house. i didn't tell him that it was just one of my bookcases -- i had a library upstairs and shelves and shelves of books in other rooms. so, underbelly, i ask you, "you read all them books?"