Acemoglu and Robinson on Mobutu
By David Henderson
I’m at a conference in San Diego in which the participants are discussing various articles and book chapters on the causes of economic growth. A number of chapters are from Daren Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail, which I posted about here.
There are a number of things about the book to criticize and I criticized some of them. I’ve heard some more good criticisms at this conference. But I want to highlight a powerful passage:
As an independent polity, Congo experienced almost unbroken economic decline and mounting poverty under the rule of Joseph Mobutu between 1965 and 1997. This decline continued after Mobutu was overthrown by Laurent Kabila. Mobutu created a highly extractive set of institutions. The citizens were impoverished, but Mobutu and the elite surrounding him, known as Les Grosses Legumes (the Big Vegetables), became fabulously wealthy. Mobutu built himself a palace at his birthplace, Gbadolite, in the north of the country, with an airport large enough to land a supersonic Concord[e] jet, a plane he frequently rented from Air France for travel to Europe. In Europe he bought castles and owned large tracts of the Belgian capital of Brussels.
Wouldn’t it have been better for Mobutu to set up economic institutions that increased the wealth of the Congolese rather than deepening their poverty? If Mobutu had managed to increase the prosperity of his nation, would he not have been able to appropriate even more money, buy a Concord[e] instead of renting one, have more castles and mansions, possibly a bigger and more powerful army? Unfortunately for the citizens of many countries in the world, the answer is no. Economic institutions that create incentives for economic progress may simultaneously redistribute income and power in a way that a predatory dictator and others with political power may become worse off.