Praise for why Nations Fail


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Political and economic institutions, which are ultimately the choice of society, can be inclusive and encourage economic growth. Or they can be extractive and become impediments to economic growth. Nations fail when they have extractive economic institutions, supported by extractive political institutions that impede and even block economic growth. But this means that the choice of institutions—that is, the politics of institutions—is central to our quest for understanding the reasons for the success and failure of nations. We have to understand why the politics of some societies lead to inclusive institutions that foster economic growth, while the politics of the vast majority of societies throughout history has led, and still leads today, to extractive institutions that hamper economic growth.

It might seem obvious that everyone should have an interest in creating the type of economic institutions that will bring prosperity. Wouldn’t every citizen, every politician, and even a predatory dictator want to make his country as wealthy as possible?

Let’s return to the Kingdom of Kongo we discussed earlier. Though this kingdom collapsed in the seventeenth century, it provided the name for the modern country that became independent from Belgian colonial rule in 1960. 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 economic 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 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 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 such a way that a predatory dictator and others with political power may become worse off.

The fundamental problem is that there will necessarily be disputes and conflict over economic institutions. Different institutions have different consequences for the prosperity of a nation, how that prosperity is distributed, and who has power. The economic growth which can be induced by institutions creates both winners and losers. This was clear during the Industrial Revolution in England, which laid the foundations of the prosperity we see in the rich countries of the world today. It centered on a series of pathbreaking technological changes in steam power, transportation, and textile production. Even though mechanization led to enormous increases in total incomes and ultimately became the foundation of modern industrial society, it was bitterly opposed by many. Not because of ignorance or shortsightedness; quite the opposite. Rather, such opposition to economic growth has its own, unfortunately coherent, logic. Economic growth and technological change are accompanied by what the great economist Joseph Schumpeter called creative destruction. They replace the old with the new. New sectors attract resources away from old ones. New firms take business away from established ones. New technologies make existing skills and machines obsolete. The process of economic growth and the inclusive institutions upon which it is based create losers as well as winners in the political arena and in the economic marketplace. Fear of creative destruction is often at the root of the opposition to inclusive economic and political institutions.

European history provides a vivid example of the consequences of creative destruction. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, the governments of most European countries were controlled by aristocracies and traditional elites, whose major source of income was from landholdings or from trading privileges they enjoyed thanks to monopolies granted and entry barriers imposed by monarchs. Consistent with the idea of creative destruction, the spread of industries, factories, and towns took resources away from the land, reduced land rents, and increased the wages that landowners had to pay their workers. These elites also saw the emergence of new businessmen and merchants eroding their trading privileges. All in all, they were the clear economic losers from industrialization. Urbanization and the emergence of a socially conscious middle and working class also challenged the political monopoly of landed aristocracies. So with the spread of the Industrial Revolution the aristocracies weren’t just the economic losers; they also risked becoming political losers, losing their hold on political power. With their economic and political power under threat, these elites often formed a formidable opposition against industrialization.

The aristocracy was not the only loser from industrialization. Artisans whose manual skills were being replaced by mechanization likewise opposed the spread of industry. Many organized against it, rioting and destroying the machines they saw as responsible for the decline of their livelihood. They were the Luddites, a word that has today become synonymous with resistance to technological change. John Kay, English inventor of the “flying shuttle” in 1733, one of the first significant improvements in the mechanization of weaving, had his house burned down by Luddites in 1753. James Hargreaves, inventor of the “spinning jenny,” a complementary revolutionary improvement in spinning, got similar treatment.

In reality, the artisans were much less effective than the landowners and elites in opposing industrialization. The Luddites did not possess the political power—the ability to affect political outcomes against the wishes of other groups—of the landed aristocracy. In England, industrialization marched on, despite the Luddites’ opposition, because aristocratic opposition, though real, was muted. In the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian empires, where the absolutist monarchs and aristocrats had far more to lose, industrialization was blocked. In consequence, the economies of Austria-Hungary and Russia stalled. They fell behind other European nations, where economic growth took off during the nineteenth century.

The success and failure of specific groups notwithstanding, one lesson is clear: powerful groups often stand against economic progress and against the engines of prosperity. Economic growth is not just a process of more and better machines, and more and better educated people, but also a transformative and destabilizing process associated with widespread creative destruction. Growth thus moves forward only if not blocked by the economic losers who anticipate that their economic privileges will be lost and by the political losers who fear that their political power will be eroded.

Conflict over scarce resources, income and power, translates into conflict over the rules of the game, the economic institutions, which will determine the economic activities and who will benefit from them. When there is a conflict, the wishes of all parties cannot be simultaneously met. Some will be defeated and frustrated, while others will succeed in securing outcomes they like. Who the winners of this conflict are has fundamental implications for a nation’s economic trajectory. If the groups standing against growth are the winners, they can successfully block economic growth, and the economy will stagnate.

The logic of why the powerful would not necessarily want to set up the economic institutions that promote economic success extends easily to the choice of political institutions. In an absolutist regime, some elites can wield power to set up economic institutions they prefer. Would they be interested in changing political institutions to make them more pluralistic? In general not, since this would only dilute their political power, making it more difficult, maybe impossible, for them to structure economic institutions to further their own interests. Here again we see a ready source of conflict. The people who suffer from the extractive economic institutions cannot hope for absolutist rulers to voluntarily change political institutions and redistribute power in society. The only way to change these political institutions is to force the elite to create more pluralistic institutions.

In the same way that there is no reason why political institutions should automatically become pluralistic, there is no natural tendency toward political centralization. There would certainly be incentives to create more centralized state institutions in any society, particularly in those with no such centralization whatsoever. For example, in Somalia, if one clan created a centralized state capable of imposing order on the country, this could lead to economic benefits and make this clan richer. What stops this? The main barrier to political centralization is again a form of fear from change: any clan, group, or politician attempting to centralize power in the state will also be centralizing power in their own hands, and this is likely to meet the ire of other clans, groups, and individuals, who would be the political losers of this process. Lack of political centralization means not only lack of law and order in much of a territory but also there being many actors with sufficient powers to block or disrupt things, and the fear of their opposition and violent reaction will often deter many would-be centralizers. Political centralization is likely only when one group of people is sufficiently more powerful than others to build a state. In Somalia, power is evenly balanced, and no one clan can impose its will on any other. Therefore, the lack of political centralization persists.

There are few better, or more depressing, examples of the forces that explain the logic of why economic prosperity is so persistently rare under extractive institutions or that illustrate the synergy between extractive economic and political institutions than the Congo. Portuguese and Dutch visitors to Kongo in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries remarked on the “miserable poverty” there. Technology was rudimentary by European standards, with the Kongolese having neither writing, the wheel, nor the plow. The reason for this poverty, and the reluctance of Kongolese farmers to adopt better technologies when they learned of them, is clear from existing historical accounts. It was due to the extractive nature of the country’s economic institutions.

As we have seen, the Kingdom of Kongo was governed by the king in Mbanza, subsequently São Salvador. Areas away from the capital were ruled by an elite who played the roles of governors of different parts of the kingdom. The wealth of this elite was based on slave plantations around São Salvador and the extraction of taxes from the rest of the country. Slavery was central to the economy, used by the elite to supply their own plantations and by Europeans on the coast. Taxes were arbitrary; one tax was even collected every time the king’s beret fell off. To become more prosperous, the Kongolese people would have had to save and invest—for example, by buying plows. But it would not have been worthwhile, since any extra output that they produced using better technology would have been subject to expropriation by the king and his elite. Instead of investing to increase their productivity and selling their products in markets, the Kongolese moved their villages away from the market; they were trying to be as far away from the roads as possible, in order to reduce the incidence of plunder and to escape the reach of slave traders.

The poverty of the Kongo was therefore the result of extractive economic institutions that blocked all the engines of prosperity or even made them work in reverse. The Kongo’s government provided very few public services to its citizens, not even basic ones, such as secure property rights or law and order. On the contrary, the government was itself the biggest threat to its subjects’ property and human rights. The institution of slavery meant that the most fundamental market of all, an inclusive labor market where people can choose their occupation or jobs in ways that are so crucial for a prosperous economy, did not exist. Moreover, long-distance trade and mercantile activities were controlled by the king and were open only to those associated with him. Though the elite quickly became literate after the Portuguese introduced writing, the king made no attempt to spread literacy to the great mass of the population.

Nevertheless, though “miserable poverty” was widespread, the Kongolese extractive institutions had their own impeccable logic: they made a few people, those with political power, very rich. In the sixteenth century, the king of Kongo and the aristocracy were able to import European luxury goods and were surrounded by servants and slaves.

The roots of the economic institutions of Kongolese society flowed from the distribution of political power in society and thus from the nature of political institutions. There was nothing to stop the king from taking people’s possessions or bodies, other than the threat of revolt. Though this threat was real, it was not enough to make people or their wealth secure. The political institutions of Kongo were truly absolutist, making the king and the elite subject to essentially no constraints, and it gave no say to the citizens in the way their society was organized.

Of course, it is not difficult to see that the political institutions of Kongo contrast sharply with inclusive political institutions where power is constrained and broadly distributed. The absolutist institutions of Kongo were kept in place by the army. The king had a standing army of five thousand troops in the mid-seventeenth century, with a core of five hundred musketeers—a formidable force for its time. Why the king and the aristocracy so eagerly adopted European firearms is thus easy to understand.

There was no chance of sustained economic growth under this set of economic institutions and even incentives for generating temporary growth were highly limited. Reforming economic institutions to improve individual property rights would have made the Kongolese society at large more prosperous. But it is unlikely that the elite would have benefited from this wider prosperity. First, such reforms would have made the elite economic losers, by undermining the wealth that the slave trade and slave plantations brought them. Second, such reforms would have been possible only if the political power of the king and the elite were curtailed. For instance, if the king continued to command his five hundred musketeers, who would have believed an announcement that slavery had been abolished? What would have stopped the king from changing his mind later on? The only real guarantee would have been a change in political institutions so that citizens gained some countervailing political power, giving them some say over taxation or what the musketeers did. But in this case it is dubious that sustaining the consumption and lifestyle of the king and the elite would have been high on their list of priorities. In this scenario, changes that would have created better economic institutions in society would have made the king and aristocracy political as well as economic losers.

The interaction of economic and political institutions five hundred years ago is still relevant for understanding why the modern state of Congo is still miserably poor today. The advent of European rule in this area, and deeper into the basin of the River Congo at the time of the “scramble for Africa” in the late nineteenth century, led to an insecurity of human and property rights even more egregious than that which characterized the precolonial Kongo. In addition, it reproduced the pattern of extractive institutions and political absolutism that empowered and enriched a few at the expense of the masses, though the few now were Belgian colonialists, most notably King Leopold II.

When Congo became independent in 1960, the same pattern of economic institutions, incentives, and performance reproduced itself. These Congolese extractive economic institutions were again supported by highly extractive political institutions. The situation was worsened because European colonialism created a polity, Congo, made up of many different precolonial states and societies that the national state, run from Kinshasa, had little control over. Though President Mobutu used the state to enrich himself and his cronies—for example, through the Zairianization program of 1973, which involved the mass expropriation of foreign economic interests—he presided over a noncentralized state with little authority over much of the country, and had to appeal to foreign assistance to stop the provinces of Katanga and Kasai from seceding in the 1960s. This lack of political centralization, almost to the point of total collapse of the state, is a feature that Congo shares with much of sub-Saharan Africa.

The modern Democratic Republic of Congo remains poor because its citizens still lack the economic institutions that create the basic incentives that make a society prosperous. It is not geography, culture, or the ignorance of its citizens or politicians that keep the Congo poor, but its extractive economic institutions. These are still in place after all these centuries because political power continues to be narrowly concentrated in the hands of an elite who have little incentive to enforce secure property rights for the people, to provide the basic public services that would improve the quality of life, or to encourage economic progress. Rather, their interests are to extract income and sustain their power. They have not used this power to build a centralized state, for to do so would create the same problems of opposition and political challenges that promoting economic growth would. Moreover, as in much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, infighting triggered by rival groups attempting to take control of extractive institutions destroyed any tendency for state centralization that might have existed.

The history of the Kingdom of Kongo, and the more recent history of the Congo, vividly illustrates how political institutions determine economic institutions and, through these, the economic incentives and the scope for economic growth. It also illustrates the symbiotic relationship between political absolutism and economic institutions that empower and enrich a few at the expense of many.

Congo today is an extreme example, with lawlessness and highly insecure property rights. However, in most cases such extremism would not serve the interest of the elite, since it would destroy all economic incentives and generate few resources to be extracted. The central thesis of this book is that economic growth and prosperity are associated with inclusive economic and political institutions, while extractive institutions typically lead to stagnation and poverty. But this implies neither that extractive institutions can never generate growth nor that all extractive institutions are created equal.

There are two distinct but complementary ways in which growth under extractive political institutions can emerge. First, even if economic institutions are extractive, growth is possible when elites can directly allocate resources to high-productivity activities that they themselves control. A prominent example of this type of growth under extractive institutions was the Caribbean Islands between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Most people were slaves, working under gruesome conditions in plantations, living barely above subsistence level. Many died from malnutrition and exhaustion. In Barbados, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a small minority, the planter elite, controlled all political power and owned all the assets, including all the slaves. While the majority had no rights, the planter elite’s property and assets were well protected. Despite the extractive economic institutions that savagely exploited the majority of the population, these islands were among the richest places in the world, because they could produce sugar and sell it in world markets. The economy of the islands stagnated only when there was a need to shift to new economic activities, which threatened both the incomes and the political power of the planter elite.

Another example is the economic growth and industrialization of the Soviet Union from the first Five-Year Plan in 1928 until the 1970s. Political and economic institutions were highly extractive, and markets were heavily constrained. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union was able to achieve rapid economic growth because it could use the power of the state to move resources from agriculture, where they were very inefficiently used, into industry.

The second type of growth under extractive political institutions arises when the institutions permit the development of somewhat, even if not completely, inclusive economic institutions. Many societies with extractive political institutions will shy away from inclusive economic institutions because of fear of creative destruction. But the degree to which the elite manage to monopolize power varies across societies. In some, the position of the elite could be sufficiently secure that they may permit some moves toward inclusive economic institutions when they are fairly certain that this will not threaten their political power. Alternatively, the historical situation could be such as to endow an extractive political regime with rather inclusive economic institutions, which they decide not to block. These provide the second way in which growth can take place under extractive political institutions.

The rapid industrialization of South Korea under General Park is an example. Park came to power via a military coup in 1961, but he did so in a society heavily supported by the United States and with an economy where economic institutions were essentially inclusive. Though Park’s regime was authoritarian, it felt secure enough to promote economic growth, and in fact did so very actively—perhaps partly because the regime was not directly supported by extractive economic institutions. Differently from the Soviet Union and most other cases of growth under extractive institutions, South Korea transitioned from extractive political institutions toward inclusive political institutions in the 1980s. This successful transition was due to a confluence of factors.

By the 1970s, economic institutions in South Korea had become sufficiently inclusive that they reduced one of the strong rationales for extractive political institutions—the economic elite had little to gain from their own or the military’s dominance of politics. The relative equality of income in South Korea also meant that the elite had less to fear from pluralism and democracy. The key influence of the United States, particularly given the threat from North Korea, also meant that the strong democracy movement that challenged the military dictatorship could not be repressed for long. Though General Park’s assassination in 1979 was followed by another military coup, led by Chun Doo-hwan, Chun’s chosen successor, Roh Tae-woo, initiated a process of political reforms that led to the consolidation of a pluralistic democracy after 1992. Of course, no transition of this sort took place in the Soviet Union. In consequence, Soviet growth ran out of steam, and the economy began to collapse in the 1980s and then totally fell apart in the 1990s.

Chinese economic growth today also has several commonalities with both the Soviet and South Korean experiences. While the early stages of Chinese growth were spearheaded by radical market reforms in the agricultural sector, reforms in the industrial sector have been more muted. Even today, the state and the Communist Party play a central role in deciding which sectors and which companies will receive additional capital and will expand—in the process, making and breaking fortunes. As in the Soviet Union in its heyday, China is growing rapidly, but this is still growth under extractive institutions, under the control of the state, with little sign of a transition to inclusive political institutions. The fact that Chinese economic institutions are still far from fully inclusive also suggests that a South Korean–style transition is less likely, though of course not impossible.

It is worth noting that political centralization is key to both ways in which growth under extractive political institutions can occur. Without some degree of political centralization, the planter elite in Barbados, Cuba, Haiti, and Jamaica would not have been able to keep law and order and defend their own assets and property. Without significant political centralization and a firm grip on political power, neither the South Korean military elites nor the Chinese Communist Party would have felt secure enough to manufacture significant economic reforms and still manage to cling to power. And without such centralization, the state in the Soviet Union or China could not have been able to coordinate economic activity to channel resources toward high productivity areas. A major dividing line between extractive political institutions is therefore their degree of political centralization. Those without it, such as many in sub-Saharan Africa, will find it difficult to achieve even limited growth.

Even though extractive institutions can generate some growth, they will usually not generate sustained economic growth, and certainly not the type of growth that is accompanied by creative destruction. When both political and economic institutions are extractive, the incentives will not be there for creative destruction and technological change. For a while the state may be able to create rapid economic growth by allocating resources and people by fiat, but this process is intrinsically limited. When the limits are hit, growth stops, as it did in the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Even when the Soviets achieved rapid economic growth, there was little technological change in most of the economy, though by pouring massive resources into the military they were able to develop military technologies and even pull ahead of the United States in the space and nuclear race for a short while. But this growth without creative destruction and without broad-based technological innovation was not sustainable and came to an abrupt end.

In addition, the arrangements that support economic growth under extractive political institutions are, by their nature, fragile—they can collapse or can be easily destroyed by the infighting that the extractive institutions themselves generate. In fact, extractive political and economic institutions create a general tendency for infighting, because they lead to the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a narrow elite. If another group can overwhelm and outmaneuver this elite and take control of the state, they will be the ones enjoying this wealth and power. Consequently, as our discussion of the collapse of the later Roman Empire and the Maya cities will illustrate (this page and this page), fighting to control the all-powerful state is always latent, and it will periodically intensify and bring the undoing of these regimes, as it turns into civil war and sometimes into total breakdown and collapse of the state. One implication of this is that even if a society under extractive institutions initially achieves some degree of state centralization, it will not last. In fact, the infighting to take control of extractive institutions often leads to civil wars and widespread lawlessness, enshrining a persistent absence of state centralization as in many nations in sub-Saharan Africa and some in Latin America and South Asia.

Finally, when growth comes under extractive political institutions but where economic institutions have inclusive aspects, as they did in South Korea, there is always the danger that economic institutions become more extractive and growth stops. Those controlling political power will eventually find it more beneficial to use their power to limit competition, to increase their share of the pie, or even to steal and loot from others rather than support economic progress. The distribution and ability to exercise power will ultimately undermine the very foundations of economic prosperity, unless political institutions are transformed from extractive to inclusive.

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