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quinta-feira, 20 de novembro de 2014

Why Nations Fail, a book by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson - a review by Sergei Soares

No site da Amazon que anuncia e vende o livro já aqui referido. O resenhista era diretor do Ipea.


Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty 


Daron Acemoglu , 
 James Robinson 

Format:Kindle Edition
To an economist like me, reading Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, is akin to being set free from shackles worn since I began studying. However, first let me say that the book has many and serious shortcomings. Let me talk about these before I get into why this book set me free. Since I am going to strongly criticize aspects of the book, let me make clear that this is one of the best books on economics I have read in a long time.

Several criticisms have been leveled in other reviews against this book: it is simplistic and perhaps overly ambitious, the history is bad, it explains away competing explanations. They are all true.

The book is undoubtedly simplistic. Basically, the authors state that the institutions of a nation or society can be placed on a one dimensional continuum running from "extractive" to "inclusive" and this explains the history of humanity from the neolithic to the present day. A second leitmotif is that the economic and political institutions complement each other and that economically inclusive but politically extractive institutions cannot last for long (as well as the opposite). Finally, since political and economic institutions reinforce each other, they are quite difficult to change, leading to what the authors call "the iron law of oligarchy." Needless to say, this really oversimplifies the analysis of institutions and history. While Acemoglu and Robinson give many, many historical examples to illustrate their thesis, some are more convincing than others. They use a huge mallet to hammer all the facts into their mold, either ignoring or re-interpreting contrary evidence.

I am no historian, but I do know the history of the region in which I live, Latin America, reasonably well. When Latin American examples were used in the book, they were shallow and even wrong. For example, the authors talk quite a bit about the establishment of indigenous "serfdom", with terrible extractive institutions such as the encomienda and repartimiento, in much of Hispanic America. I agree the story they tell is quite important but they do not get it quite right. Acemoglu and Robinson tell the tale of these institutions as if they were simply set in place by colonizing Spaniards when the truth was much more complex, involving conflicts and constant negotiation between the Spanish colonizers, the Spanish Crown, and the conquered peoples themselves. The colonizers wanted to set up slavery instead of serfdom but were impeded from doing so by the Crown through the Leyes Nuevas. The story is told marvelously well in La Patria del Criollo by Severo Martinez Pelaez. The funny thing is that the correct narrative would fit well into the inclusive-extractive framework with a richness that comes from putting in two groups of elite actors with divergent interests, but Acemoglu and Robinson tell it so simplistically so as to miss out.

Likewise, the authors analyze, in different points of the book, Colombia and Brazil, with exceptional praise for Brazilian institutions while they heap abuse upon the Colombian ones. Brazil at the present time has, evidently, better institutions than a Colombia only (we hope) beginning to emerge from decades of civil war. But these two countries are much more alike than different. If you believe the tale told by Acemoglu and Robinson, they could have been comparing Japan and Burma, and not two nations with similar history, GDP, and institutions. While Colombia has seen many horrors and has a long road to travel, recent progress in reigning in lawlessness and chaos is undeniable. While Brazil has seen amazing institutional progress in the last fez decades, many of its cities suffer with murder rates higher than those of Colombian cities, de facto slave labor can be still found in some areas, and its income and especially property distributions are still among the most unequal in Latin America. Especially jarring is that, in other parts of the book, the authors place great emphasis on when institutions limit executive power, giving as an example the American system's unwillingness to allow FDR to pack the Supreme Court to get his way. The same happened in Colombia when Alvaro Uribe passed legislation allowing him to run for a third term and the Supreme Court shot it down with the broad support of Colombian society, including Uribe's allies.

The same can be said of their analysis of Mexico and Argentina: maybe not wrong, but terribly shallow. I know little of the Glorious Revolution, the Roman Empire, the Meiji Restoration, the history of Botswana, or much else of what the book is based upon. But if the standard is the same as the their Latin American examples, then much of the book based upon is poor history. In defense of the authors, it is difficult to draw the details with finesse when painting with a broad brush and the history of humanity from the neolithic to present day is about as broad as you can get in the social sciences.

A final criticism is that Acemoglu and Robinson do not give competing explanations for the backwardness of nations the credit they deserve. They explain away rather than seek dialogue. They classify competing explanations into the Geography Hypothesis, the Culture Hypothesis, and the Ignorance Hypothesis. One problem is that they ignore other competing explanations that go from scientific knowledge (see Margaret Jacob's Scientific Culture and the Making of the Industrial West) to various Marxist explanations based upon capital accumulation. While Acemoglu and Robinson obviously admire Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel - which is very well-argued "geography is destiny" book - they ignore other important proponents of the Geography Hypothesis such as Kenneth Pommeranz. I feel their case would be made stronger if they argued that the two approaches were complementary and not adversarial. A relation between geography, technology, political institutions, and economic institutions would be a much stronger theory than institutions alone.

With regards to the Culture Hypothesis, they are (I believe) correct in criticizing it for being so fluid as to be virtually without content. But here my take is not entirely neutral as I particularly loathe the Culture Hypothesis.

But it is on the Ignorance Hypothesis that Acemoglu and Robinson fire their cannon with relish. Being intelligent economists in contact with the intellectual world of "development" I am sure they are very frustrated at the arrogance of policy advisors from the likes of the World Bank, United Nations, or IMF who believe they have the solution to all the developing world's problems "if only policymakers would listen to them." I am not unsympathetic to their disgust at these people but I think Acemoglu and Robinson throw the baby away with the dirty bath water. History is just too full of examples of disastrous policies (disastrous for those who implemented them, not only for the poor souls who inhabit their countries) for the Ignorance Hypothesis to be dismissed out of hand. The authors blame almost all, if not all, bad policies on the material interests of the elite whose position would be endangered by good policy.

A more subtle, and, in my opinion, much more serious, problem is that knowledge and interests are not independent. It is one thing for the elite to choose bad (bad for the many) policy if that policy can be dressed up in plausible and attractive intellectual robes and quite another if that policy is seen as nothing more than plundering of the many by the few (see Antonio Gramsci on role of the intellectual in allowing policy agendas to go forward or not). The "economic nationalism" that has destroyed so many African, Latin American, and Middle Eastern economies is not just pure extraction of wealth of the many by the few; it also dressed in a coherent economic theory espoused by a host of intelligent sociologists and economists (for a popular, if somewhat limited exposition, see The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano). This is why dismissal of the Ignorance Hypothesis is so dangerous: not only is knowledge power, but economic theories that are on your side are also power.

So the book has quite a few shortcomings. Why did I like it so much?

Because as economists we are taught from course one that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. The trade-off between efficiency and equity has been fed to us since before we were weaned. The result to an economist very interested in equality such as myself are intellectual shackles that hobble and cripple our thinking.

Acemoglu and Robinson show us that in the real world, not some paretian maximum efficiency world, but the real one full of monopolies and other horrendous extractive institutions, there is no such trade-off. Equity is efficiency. Only egalitarian institutions allow for the full creative potential of people to be unleashed and thus only egalitarian institutions allow for boundless, unlimited growth based upon technology and productivity. There may be an equity-efficiency trade-off in Sweden or Norway, but certainly not in Mexico, Brazil, Haiti, Zimbabwe, or Pakistan. Much of this has been around in different guises since Schumpeter (who the authors cite extensively) and, more recently, in the endogenous growth literature, but nowhere has it been as clearly stated as in Why Nations Fail.

Why Nations Fail not only states this as its official position but, in spite of all its shortcomings, argues the point so well so as to be entirely convincing (at least to me). The fact that the authors get much of the history not quite right and that they fight rather than incorporate "competing" explanations does not reduce importance of the book and its central message. The sheer optimism of its viewpoint is as liberating as the Emancipation Proclamation.
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