TOWARD A THEORY OF WORLD INEQUALITY We live in an unequal world. The differences among nations are similar to those between the two parts of Nogales, just on a larger scale. In rich countries, individuals are healthier, live longer, and are much better educated. They also have access to a range of amenities and options in life, from vacations to career paths, that people in poor countries can only dream of. People in rich countries also drive on roads without potholes, and enjoy toilets, electricity, and running water in their houses. They also typically have governments that do not arbitrarily arrest or harass them; on the contrary, the governments provide services, including education, health care, roads, and law and order. Notable, too, is the fact that the citizens vote in elections and have some voice in the political direction their countries take.
The great differences in world inequality are evident to everyone, even to those in poor countries, though many lack access to television or the Internet. It is the perception and reality of these differences that drive people to cross the Rio Grande or the Mediterranean Sea illegally to have the chance to experience rich-country living standards and opportunities. This inequality doesn’t just have consequences for the lives of individual people in poor countries; it also causes grievances and resentment, with huge political consequences in the United States and elsewhere. Understanding why these differences exist and what causes them is our focus in this book. Developing such an understanding is not just an end in itself, but also a first step toward generating better ideas about how to improve the lives of billions who still live in poverty.
The disparities on the two sides of the fence in Nogales are just the tip of the iceberg. As in the rest of northern Mexico, which benefits from trade with the United States, even if not all of it is legal, the residents of Nogales are more prosperous than other Mexicans, whose average annual household income is around $5,000. This greater relative prosperity of Nogales, Sonora, comes from maquiladora manufacturing plants centered in industrial parks, the first of which was started by Richard Campbell, Jr., a California basket manufacturer. The first tenant was Coin-Art, a musical instrument company owned by Richard Bosse, owner of the Artley flute and saxophone company in Nogales, Arizona. Coin-Art was followed by Memorex (computer wiring); Avent (hospital clothing); Grant (sunglasses); Chamberlain (a manufacturer of garage door openers for Sears); and Samsonite (suitcases). Significantly, all are U.S.-based businesses and businessmen, using U.S. capital and know-how. The greater prosperity of Nogales, Sonora, relative to the rest of Mexico, therefore, comes from outside.
The differences between the United States and Mexico are in turn small compared with those across the entire globe. The average citizen of the United States is seven times as prosperous as the average Mexican and more than ten times as the resident of Peru or Central America. She is about twenty times as prosperous as the average inhabitant of sub-Saharan Africa, and almost forty times as those living in the poorest African countries such as Mali, Ethiopia, and Sierra Leone. And it’s not just the United States. There is a small but growing group of rich countries—mostly in Europe and North America, joined by Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—whose citizens enjoy very different lives from those of the inhabitants of the rest of the globe.
The reason that Nogales, Arizona, is much richer than Nogales, Sonora, is simple; it is because of the very different institutions on the two sides of the border, which create very different incentives for the inhabitants of Nogales, Arizona, versus Nogales, Sonora. The United States is also far richer today than either Mexico or Peru because of the way its institutions, both economic and political, shape the incentives of businesses, individuals, and politicians. Each society functions with a set of economic and political rules created and enforced by the state and the citizens collectively. Economic institutions shape economic incentives: the incentives to become educated, to save and invest, to innovate and adopt new technologies, and so on. It is the political process that determines what economic institutions people live under, and it is the political institutions that determine how this process works. For example, it is the political institutions of a nation that determine the ability of citizens to control politicians and influence how they behave. This in turn determines whether politicians are agents of the citizens, albeit imperfect, or are able to abuse the power entrusted to them, or that they have usurped, to amass their own fortunes and to pursue their own agendas, ones detrimental to those of the citizens. Political institutions include but are not limited to written constitutions and to whether the society is a democracy. They include the power and capacity of the state to regulate and govern society. It is also necessary to consider more broadly the factors that determine how political power is distributed in society, particularly the ability of different groups to act collectively to pursue their objectives or to stop other people from pursuing theirs.
As institutions influence behavior and incentives in real life, they forge the success or failure of nations. Individual talent matters at every level of society, but even that needs an institutional framework to transform it into a positive force. Bill Gates, like other legendary figures in the information technology industry (such as Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Jeff Bezos), had immense talent and ambition. But he ultimately responded to incentives. The schooling system in the United States enabled Gates and others like him to acquire a unique set of skills to complement their talents. The economic institutions in the United States enabled these men to start companies with ease, without facing insurmountable barriers. Those institutions also made the financing of their projects feasible. The U.S. labor markets enabled them to hire qualified personnel, and the relatively competitive market environment enabled them to expand their companies and market their products. These entrepreneurs were confident from the beginning that their dream projects could be implemented: they trusted the institutions and the rule of law that these generated and they did not worry about the security of their property rights. Finally, the political institutions ensured stability and continuity. For one thing, they made sure that there was no risk of a dictator taking power and changing the rules of the game, expropriating their wealth, imprisoning them, or threatening their lives and livelihoods. They also made sure that no particular interest in society could warp the government in an economically disastrous direction, because political power was both limited and distributed sufficiently broadly that a set of economic institutions that created the incentives for prosperity could emerge.
This book will show that while economic institutions are critical for determining whether a country is poor or prosperous, it is politics and political institutions that determine what economic institutions a country has. Ultimately the good economic institutions of the United States resulted from the political institutions that gradually emerged after 1619. Our theory for world inequality shows how political and economic institutions interact in causing poverty or prosperity, and how different parts of the world ended up with such different sets of institutions. Our brief review of the history of the Americas begins to give a sense of the forces that shape political and economic institutions. Different patterns of institutions today are deeply rooted in the past because once society gets organized in a particular way, this tends to persist. We’ll show that this fact comes from the way that political and economic institutions interact.
This persistence and the forces that create it also explain why it is so difficult to remove world inequality and to make poor countries prosperous. Though institutions are the key to the differences between the two Nogaleses and between Mexico and the United States, that doesn’t mean there will be a consensus in Mexico to change institutions. There is no necessity for a society to develop or adopt the institutions that are best for economic growth or the welfare of its citizens, because other institutions may be even better for those who control politics and political institutions. The powerful and the rest of society will often disagree about which set of institutions should remain in place and which ones should be changed. Carlos Slim would not have been happy to see his political connections disappear and the entry barriers protecting his businesses fizzle—no matter that the entry of new businesses would enrich millions of Mexicans. Because there is no such consensus, what rules society ends up with is determined by politics: who has power and how this power can be exercised. Carlos Slim has the power to get what he wants. Bill Gates’s power is far more limited. That’s why our theory is about not just economics but also politics. It is about the effects of institutions on the success and failure of nations—thus the economics of poverty and prosperity; it is also about how institutions are determined and change over time, and how they fail to change even when they create poverty and misery for millions—thus the politics of poverty and prosperity.
THEORIES THAT DON’T WORK THE LAY OF THE LAND THE FOCUS OF our book is on explaining world inequality and also some of the easily visible broad patterns that nest within it. The first country to experience sustained economic growth was England—or Great Britain, usually just Britain, as the union of England, Wales, and Scotland after 1707 is known. Growth emerged slowly in the second half of the eighteenth century as the Industrial Revolution, based on major technological breakthroughs and their application in industry, took root. Industrialization in England was soon followed by industrialization in most of Western Europe and the United States. English prosperity also spread rapidly to Britain’s “settler colonies” of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. A list of the thirty richest countries today would include them, plus Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. The prosperity of these latter three is in turn part of a broader pattern in which many East Asian nations, including Taiwan and subsequently China, have experienced recent rapid growth.
The bottom of the world income distribution paints as sharp and as distinctive a picture as the top. If you instead make a list of the poorest thirty countries in the world today, you will find almost all of them in sub-Saharan Africa. They are joined by countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, and Nepal, which, though not in Africa, all share something critical with African nations, as we’ll explain. If you went back fifty years, the countries in the top and bottom thirty wouldn’t be greatly different. Singapore and South Korea would not be among the richest countries, and there would be several different countries in the bottom thirty, but the overall picture that emerged would be remarkably consistent with what we see today. Go back one hundred years, or a hundred and fifty, and you’d find nearly the same countries in the same groups.
Map 3 shows the lay of the land in 2008. The countries shaded in the darkest color are the poorest in the world, those where average per-capita incomes (called by economists GDP, gross domestic product) are less than $2,000 annually. Most of Africa is in this color, as are Afghanistan, Haiti, and parts of Southeast Asia (for example, Cambodia and Laos). North Korea is also among this group of countries. The countries in white are the richest, those with annual income per-capita of $20,000 or more. Here we find the usual suspects: North America, western Europe, Australasia, and Japan.
Another interesting pattern can be discerned in the Americas. Make a list of the nations in the Americas from richest to poorest. You will find that at the top are the United States and Canada, followed by Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay, and maybe also Venezuela, depending on the price of oil. After that you have Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Peru. At the bottom there is another distinct, much poorer group, comprising Bolivia, Guatemala, and Paraguay. Go back fifty years, and you’ll find an identical ranking. One hundred years: same thing. One hundred and fifty years: again the same. So it is not just that the United States and Canada are richer than Latin America; there is also a definite and persistent divide between the rich and poor nations within Latin America.
A final interesting pattern is in the Middle East. There we find oil-rich nations such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, which have income levels close to those of our top thirty. Yet if the oil price fell, they would quickly fall back down the table. Middle Eastern countries with little or no oil, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, all cluster around a level of income similar to that of Guatemala or Peru. Without oil, Middle Eastern countries are also all poor, though, like those in Central America and the Andes, not so poor as those in sub-Saharan Africa.
While there is a lot of persistence in the patterns of prosperity we see around us today, these patterns are not unchanging or immutable. First, as we have already emphasized, most of current world inequality emerged since the late eighteenth century, following on the tails of the Industrial Revolution. Not only were gaps in prosperity much smaller as late as the middle of the eighteenth century, but the rankings which have been so stable since then are not the same when we go further back in history. In the Americas, for example, the ranking we see for the last hundred and fifty years was completely different five hundred years ago. Second, many nations have experienced several decades of rapid growth, such as much of East Asia since the Second World War and, more recently, China. Many of these subsequently saw that growth go into reverse. Argentina, for example, grew rapidly for five decades up until 1920, becoming one of the richest countries in the world, but then started a long slide. The Soviet Union is an even more noteworthy example, growing rapidly between 1930 and 1970, but subsequently experiencing a rapid collapse.
What explains these major differences in poverty and prosperity and the patterns of growth? Why did Western European nations and their colonial offshoots filled with European settlers start growing in the nineteenth century, scarcely looking back? What explains the persistent ranking of inequality within the Americas? Why have sub-Saharan African and Middle Eastern nations failed to achieve the type of economic growth seen in Western Europe, while much of East Asia has experienced breakneck rates of economic growth?
One might think that the fact that world inequality is so huge and consequential and has such sharply drawn patterns would mean that it would have a well-accepted explanation. Not so. Most hypotheses that social scientists have proposed for the origins of poverty and prosperity just don’t work and fail to convincingly explain the lay of the land.
THE GEOGRAPHY HYPOTHESIS One widely accepted theory of the causes of world inequality is the geography hypothesis, which claims that the great divide between rich and poor countries is created by geographical differences. Many poor countries, such as those of Africa, Central America, and South Asia, are between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Rich nations, in contrast, tend to be in temperate latitudes. This geographic concentration of poverty and prosperity gives a superficial appeal to the geography hypothesis, which is the starting point of the theories and views of many social scientists and pundits alike. But this doesn’t make it any less wrong.
As early as the late eighteenth century, the great French political philosopher Montesquieu noted the geographic concentration of prosperity and poverty, and proposed an explanation for it. He argued that people in tropical climates tended to be lazy and to lack inquisitiveness. As a consequence, they didn’t work hard and were not innovative, and this was the reason why they were poor. Montesquieu also speculated that lazy people tended to be ruled by despots, suggesting that a tropical location could explain not just poverty but also some of the political phenomena associated with economic failure, such as dictatorship.
The theory that hot countries are intrinsically poor, though contradicted by the recent rapid economic advance of countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Botswana, is still forcefully advocated by some, such as the economist Jeffrey Sachs. The modern version of this view emphasizes not the direct effects of climate on work effort or thought processes, but two additional arguments: first, that tropical diseases, particularly malaria, have very adverse consequences for health and therefore labor productivity; and second, that tropical soils do not allow for productive agriculture. The conclusion, though, is the same: temperate climates have a relative advantage over tropical and semitropical areas.
World inequality, however, cannot be explained by climate or diseases, or any version of the geography hypothesis. Just think of Nogales. What separates the two parts is not climate, geography, or disease environment, but the U.S.-Mexico border.
If the geography hypothesis cannot explain differences between the north and south of Nogales, or North and South Korea, or those between East and West Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall, could it still be a useful theory for explaining differences between North and South America? Between Europe and Africa? Simply, no.
History illustrates that there is no simple or enduring connection between climate or geography and economic success. For instance, it is not true that the tropics have always been poorer than temperate latitudes. As we saw in the last chapter, at the time of the conquest of the Americas by Columbus, the areas south of the Tropic of Cancer and north of the Tropic of Capricorn, which today include Mexico, Central America, Peru, and Bolivia, held the great Aztec and Inca civilizations. These empires were politically centralized and complex, built roads, and provided famine relief. The Aztecs had both money and writing, and the Incas, even though they lacked both these two key technologies, recorded vast amounts of information on knotted ropes called quipus. In sharp contrast, at the time of the Aztecs and Incas, the north and south of the area inhabited by the Aztecs and Incas, which today includes the United States, Canada, Argentina, and Chile, were mostly inhabited by Stone Age civilizations lacking these technologies. The tropics in the Americas were thus much richer than the temperate zones, suggesting that the “obvious fact” of tropical poverty is neither obvious nor a fact. Instead, the greater riches in the United States and Canada represent a stark reversal of fortune relative to what was there when the Europeans arrived.
This reversal clearly had nothing to do with geography and, as we have already seen, something to do with the way these areas were colonized. This reversal was not confined to the Americas. People in South Asia, especially the Indian subcontinent, and in China were more prosperous than those in many other parts of Asia and certainly more than the peoples inhabiting Australia and New Zealand. This, too, was reversed, with South Korea, Singapore, and Japan emerging as the richest nations in Asia, and Australia and New Zealand surpassing almost all of Asia in terms of prosperity. Even within sub-Saharan Africa there was a similar reversal. More recently, before the start of intense European contact with Africa, the southern Africa region was the most sparsely settled and the farthest from having developed states with any kind of control over their territories. Yet South Africa is now one of the most prosperous nations in sub-Saharan Africa. Further back in history we again see much prosperity in the tropics; some of the great premodern civilizations, such as Angkor in modern Cambodia, Vijayanagara in southern India, and Aksum in Ethiopia, flourished in the tropics, as did the great Indus Valley civilizations of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in modern Pakistan. History thus leaves little doubt that there is no simple connection between a tropical location and economic success.
Tropical diseases obviously cause much suffering and high rates of infant mortality in Africa, but they are not the reason Africa is poor. Disease is largely a consequence of poverty and of governments being unable or unwilling to undertake the public health measures necessary to eradicate them. England in the nineteenth century was also a very unhealthy place, but the government gradually invested in clean water, in the proper treatment of sewage and effluent, and, eventually, in an effective health service. Improved health and life expectancy were not the cause of England’s economic success but one of the fruits of its previous political and economic changes. The same is true for Nogales, Arizona.
The other part of the geography hypothesis is that the tropics are poor because tropical agriculture is intrinsically unproductive. Tropical soils are thin and unable to maintain nutrients, the argument goes, and emphasizes how quickly these soils are eroded by torrential rains. There certainly is some merit in this argument, but as we’ll show, the prime determinant of why agricultural productivity—agricultural output per acre—is so low in many poor countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, has little to do with soil quality. Rather, it is a consequence of the ownership structure of the land and the incentives that are created for farmers by the governments and institutions under which they live. We will also show that world inequality cannot be explained by differences in agricultural productivity. The great inequality of the modern world that emerged in the nineteenth century was caused by the uneven dissemination of industrial technologies and manufacturing production. It was not caused by divergence in agricultural performance.
Another influential version of the geography hypothesis is advanced by the ecologist and evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond. He argues that the origins of intercontinental inequality at the start of the modern period, five hundred years ago, rested in different historical endowments of plant and animal species, which subsequently influenced agricultural productivity. In some places, such as the Fertile Crescent in the modern Middle East, there were a large number of species that could be domesticated by humans. Elsewhere, such as the Americas, there were not. Having many species capable of being domesticated made it very attractive for societies to make the transition from a hunter-gatherer to a farming lifestyle. As a consequence, farming developed earlier in the Fertile Crescent than in the Americas. Population density grew, allowing specialization of labor, trade, urbanization, and political development. Crucially, in places where farming dominated, technological innovation took place much more rapidly than in other parts of the world. Thus, according to Diamond, the differential availability of animal and plant species created differential intensities of farming, which led to different paths of technological change and prosperity across different continents.
Though Diamond’s thesis is a powerful approach to the puzzle on which he focuses, it cannot be extended to explain modern world inequality. For example, Diamond argues that the Spanish were able to dominate the civilizations of the Americas because of their longer history of farming and consequent superior technology. But we now need to explain why the Mexicans and Peruvians inhabiting the former lands of the Aztecs and Incas are poor. While having access to wheat, barley, and horses might have made the Spanish richer than the Incas, the gap in incomes between the two was not very large. The average income of a Spaniard was probably less than double that of a citizen of the Inca Empire. Diamond’s thesis implies that once the Incas had been exposed to all the species and resulting technologies that they had not been able to develop themselves, they ought quickly to have attained the living standards of the Spanish. Yet nothing of the sort happened. On the contrary, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a much larger gap in incomes between Spain and Peru emerged. Today the average Spaniard is more than six times richer than the average Peruvian. This gap in incomes is closely connected to the uneven dissemination of modern industrial technologies, but this has little to do either with the potential for animal and plant domestication or with intrinsic agricultural productivity differences between Spain and Peru.
While Spain, albeit with a lag, adopted the technologies of steam power, railroads, electricity, mechanization, and factory production, Peru did not, or at best did so very slowly and imperfectly. This technological gap persists today and reproduces itself on a bigger scale as new technologies, in particular those related to information technology, fuel further growth in many developed and some rapidly developing nations. Diamond’s thesis does not tell us why these crucial technologies are not diffusing and equalizing incomes across the world and does not explain why the northern half of Nogales is so much richer than its twin just to the south of the fence, even though both were part of the same civilization five hundred years ago.
The story of Nogales highlights another major problem in adapting Diamond’s thesis: as we have already seen, whatever the drawbacks of the Inca and Aztec empires were in 1532, Peru and Mexico were undoubtedly more prosperous than those parts of the Americas that went on to become the United States and Canada. North America became more prosperous precisely because it enthusiastically adopted the technologies and advances of the Industrial Revolution. The population became educated and railways spread out across the Great Plains in stark contrast to what happened in South America. This cannot be explained by pointing to differential geographic endowments of North and South America, which, if anything, favored South America.
Inequality in the modern world largely results from the uneven dissemination and adoption of technologies, and Diamond’s thesis does include important arguments about this. For instance, he argues, following the historian William McNeill, that the east–west orientation of Eurasia enabled crops, animals, and innovations to spread from the Fertile Crescent into Western Europe, while the north–south orientation of the Americas accounts for why writing systems, which were created in Mexico, did not spread to the Andes or North America. Yet the orientation of continents cannot provide an explanation for today’s world inequality. Consider Africa. Though the Sahara Desert did present a significant barrier to the movement of goods and ideas from the north to sub-Saharan Africa, this was not insurmountable. The Portuguese, and then other Europeans, sailed around the coast and eliminated differences in knowledge at a time when gaps in incomes were very small compared with what they are today. Since then, Africa has not caught up with Europe; on the contrary, there is now a much larger income gap between most African and European countries.
It should also be clear that Diamond’s argument, which is about continental inequality, is not well equipped to explain variation within continents—an essential part of modern world inequality. For example, while the orientation of the Eurasian landmass might explain how England managed to benefit from the innovations of the Middle East without having to reinvent them, it doesn’t explain why the Industrial Revolution happened in England rather than, say, Moldova. In addition, as Diamond himself points out, China and India benefited greatly from very rich suites of animals and plants, and from the orientation of Eurasia. But most of the poor people of the world today are in those two countries.
In fact, the best way to see the scope of Diamond’s thesis is in terms of his own explanatory variables. Map 4 shows data on the distribution of Sus scrofa, the ancestor of the modern pig, and the aurochs, ancestor of the modern cow. Both species were widely distributed throughout Eurasia and even North Africa. Map 5 (this page) shows the distribution of some of the wild ancestors of modern domesticated crops, such as Oryza sativa, the ancestor of Asian cultivated rice, and the ancestors of modern wheat and barley. It demonstrates that the wild ancestor of rice was distributed widely across south and southeast Asia, while the ancestors of barley and wheat were distributed along a long arc from the Levant, reaching through Iran and into Afghanistan and the cluster of “stans” (Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Krgyzistan). These ancestral species are present in much of Eurasia. But their wide distribution suggests that inequality within Eurasia cannot be explained by a theory based on the incidence of the species.
The geography hypothesis is not only unhelpful for explaining the origins of prosperity throughout history, and mostly incorrect in its emphasis, but also unable to account for the lay of the land we started this chapter with. One might argue that any persistent pattern, such as the hierarchy of incomes within the Americas or the sharp and long-ranging differences between Europe and the Middle East, can be explained by unchanging geography. But this is not so. We have already seen that the patterns within the Americas are highly unlikely to have been driven by geographical factors. Before 1492 it was the civilizations in the central valley of Mexico, Central America, and the Andes that had superior technology and living standards to North America or places such as Argentina and Chile. While the geography stayed the same, the institutions imposed by European colonists created a “reversal of fortune.” Geography is also unlikely to explain the poverty of the Middle East for similar reasons. After all, the Middle East led the world in the Neolithic Revolution, and the first towns developed in modern Iraq. Iron was first smelted in Turkey, and as late as the Middle Ages the Middle East was technologically dynamic. It was not the geography of the Middle East that made the Neolithic Revolution flourish in that part of the world, as we will see in chapter 5, and it was, again, not geography that made the Middle East poor. Instead, it was the expansion and consolidation of the Ottoman Empire, and it is the institutional legacy of this empire that keeps the Middle East poor today.
Finally, geographic factors are unhelpful for explaining not only the differences we see across various parts of the world today but also why many nations such as Japan or China stagnate for long periods and then start a rapid growth process. We need another, better theory.