Why Nations Fail: A Contrarian Take
By Bryan Caplan
Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail has been widely praised and extremely influential. But one of the most brilliant students I’ve ever taught, Nathan Smith, provides a contrarian perspective. According to Nathan, it’s…
…one of the most over-rated books I’ve ever read. It’s fatally
unrigorous, equally destitute of formal theory and econometrics. A naïve
view of the beneficence of democracy has long since been ripped apart
by public choice economics,
yet Acemoglu and Robinson revive it in the crudest form. People good,
elites bad. The book is somewhat persuasive via selective anecdotes if
you’re willing to swallow its bizarre terminology, e.g., “inclusive
economic institutions” means protection of property rights, even though
property rights consist precisely in the right to exclude
others. All in all, I tend to think development economics peaked with
the empirical work of Jeffery Sachs in the 1990s, and it’s been downhill
from there. Daron Acemoglu, in particular, has been a disaster for the
field. Honest empirical work on the democracy => growth causal link
suggests that the effect is basically nil.
But Acemoglu and Robinson’s tendentiously fact-packed and conceptually
confusing tome has given development economists a pretext for taking a
more politically correct view.
I’ve yet to read Why Nations Fail. I’m not endorsing Smith’s view, just sharing it. I will say, however, that several prominent economists have told me the same thing off the record. If you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts.