Praise for why Nations Fail


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The outcomes of the events during critical junctures are shaped by the weight of history, as existing economic and political institutions shape the balance of power and delineate what is politically feasible. The outcome, however, is not historically predetermined but contingent. The exact path of institutional development during these periods depends on which one of the opposing forces will succeed, which groups will be able to form effective coalitions, and which leaders will be able to structure events to their advantage.

The role of contingency can be illustrated by the origins of inclusive political institutions in England. Not only was there nothing preordained in the victory of the groups vying for limiting the power of the Crown and for more pluralistic institutions in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but the entire path leading up to this political revolution was at the mercy of contingent events. The victory of the winning groups was inexorably linked to the critical juncture created by the rise of Atlantic trade that enriched and emboldened merchants opposing the Crown. But a century earlier it was far from obvious that England would have any ability to dominate the seas, colonize many parts of the Caribbean and North America, or capture so much of the lucrative trade with the Americas and the East. Neither Elizabeth I nor other Tudor monarchs before her had built a powerful, unified navy. The English navy relied on privateers and independent merchant ships and was much less powerful than the Spanish fleet. The profits of the Atlantic nonetheless attracted these privateers, challenging the Spanish monopoly of the ocean. In 1588 the Spanish decided to put an end to these challenges to their monopoly, as well as to English meddling in the Spanish Netherlands, at the time fighting against Spain for independence.

The Spanish monarch Philip II sent a powerful fleet, the Armada, commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia. It appeared a foregone conclusion to many that the Spanish would conclusively defeat the English, solidify their monopoly of the Atlantic, and probably overthrow Elizabeth I, perhaps ultimately gaining control of the British Isles. Yet something very different transpired. Bad weather and strategic mistakes by Sidonia, who had been put in charge at the last minute after a more experienced commander died, made the Spanish Armada lose their advantage. Against all odds, the English destroyed much of the fleet of their more powerful opponents. The Atlantic seas were now open to the English on more equal terms. Without this unlikely victory for the English, the events that would create the transformative critical juncture and spawn the distinctively pluralistic political institutions of post-1688 England would never have got moving. Map 9 shows the trail of Spanish shipwrecks as the Armada was chased right around the British Isles.

Of course, nobody in 1588 could foresee the consequences of the fortunate English victory. Few probably understood at the time that this would create a critical juncture leading up to a major political revolution a century later.

There should be no presumption that any critical juncture will lead to a successful political revolution or to change for the better. History is full of examples of revolutions and radical movements replacing one tyranny with another, in a pattern that the German sociologist Robert Michels dubbed the iron law of oligarchy, a particularly pernicious form of the vicious circle. The end of colonialism in the decades following the Second World War created critical junctures for many former colonies. However, in most cases in sub-Saharan Africa and many in Asia, the postindependence governments simply took a page out of Robert Michels’s book and repeated and intensified the abuses of their predecessors, often severely narrowing the distribution of political power, dismantling constraints, and undermining the already meager incentives that economic institutions provided for investment and economic progress. It was only in a few cases, societies such as Botswana (see this page), that critical junctures were used to launch a process of political and economic change that paved the way for economic growth.

Critical junctures can also result in major change toward rather than away from extractive institutions. Inclusive institutions, even though they have their own feedback loop, the virtuous circle, can also reverse course and become gradually more extractive because of challenges during critical junctures—and whether this happens is, again, contingent. The Venetian Republic, as we will see in chapter 6, made major strides toward inclusive political and economic institutions in the medieval period. But while such institutions became gradually stronger in England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in Venice they ultimately transformed themselves into extractive institutions under the control of a narrow elite that monopolized both economic opportunities and political power.

The emergence of a market economy based on inclusive institutions and sustained economic growth in eighteenth-century England sent ripples all around the world, not least because it allowed England to colonize a large part of it. But if the influence of English economic growth certainly spread around the globe, the economic and political institutions that created it did not automatically do so. The diffusion of the Industrial Revolution had different effects on the world in the same way that the Black Death had different effects on Western and Eastern Europe, and in the same way that the expansion of Atlantic trade had different effects in England and Spain. It was the institutions in place in different parts of the world that determined the impact, and these institutions were indeed different—small differences had been amplified over time by prior critical junctures. These institutional differences and their implications have tended to persist to the present due to the vicious and virtuous circles, albeit imperfectly, and are the key to understanding both how world inequality emerged and the nature of the lay of the land around us.

Some parts of the world developed institutions that were very close to those in England, though by a very different route. This was particularly true of some European “settler colonies” such as Australia, Canada, and the United States, though their institutions were just forming as the Industrial Revolution was getting under way. As we saw in chapter 1, a process starting with the foundation of the Jamestown colony in 1607 and culminating in the War of Independence and the enactment of the U.S. Constitution shares many of the same characteristics as the long struggle in England of Parliament against the monarchy, for it also led to a centralized state with pluralistic political institutions. The Industrial Revolution then spread rapidly to such countries.

Western Europe, experiencing many of the same historical processes, had institutions similar to England at the time of the Industrial Revolution. There were small but consequential differences between England and the rest, which is why the Industrial Revolution happened in England and not France. This revolution then created an entirely new situation and considerably different sets of challenges to European regimes, which in turn spawned a new set of conflicts culminating in the French Revolution. The French Revolution was another critical juncture that led the institutions of Western Europe to converge with those of England, while Eastern Europe diverged further.

The rest of the world followed different institutional trajectories. European colonization set the stage for institutional divergence in the Americas, where in contrast to the inclusive institutions developed in the United States and Canada extractive ones emerged in Latin America, which explains the patterns of inequality we see in the Americas. The extractive political and economic institutions of the Spanish conquistadors in Latin America have endured, condemning much of the region to poverty. Argentina and Chile have, however, fared better than most other countries in the region. They had few indigenous people or mineral riches and were “neglected” while the Spanish focused on the lands occupied by the Aztec, Maya, and Incan civilizations. Not coincidentally, the poorest part of Argentina is the northwest, the only section of the country integrated into the Spanish colonial economy. Its persistent poverty, the legacy of extractive institutions, is similar to that created by the Potosí mita in Bolivia and Peru (this pagethis page).

Africa was the part of the world with the institutions least able to take advantage of the opportunities made available by the Industrial Revolution. For at least the last one thousand years, outside of small pockets and during limited periods of time, Africa has lagged behind the rest of the world in terms of technology, political development, and prosperity. It is the part of the world where centralized states formed very late and very tenuously. Where they did form, they were likely as highly absolutist as the Kongo and often short lived, usually collapsing. Africa shares this trajectory of lack of state centralization with countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, and Nepal, which have also failed to impose order over their territories and create anything resembling stability to achieve even a modicum of economic progress. Though located in very different parts of the world, Afghanistan, Haiti, and Nepal have much in common institutionally with most nations in sub-Saharan Africa, and are thus some of the poorest countries in the world today.

How African institutions evolved into their present-day extractive form again illustrates the process of institutional drift punctuated by critical junctures, but this time often with highly perverse outcomes, particularly during the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade. There were new economic opportunities for the Kingdom of Kongo when European traders arrived. The long-distance trade that transformed Europe also transformed the Kingdom of Kongo, but again, initial institutional differences mattered. Kongolese absolutism transmogrified from completely dominating society, with extractive economic institutions that merely captured all the agricultural output of its citizens, to enslaving people en masse and selling them to the Portuguese in exchange for guns and luxury goods for the Kongolese elite.

The initial differences between England and Kongo meant that while new long-distance trade opportunities created a critical juncture toward pluralistic political institutions in the former, they also extinguished any hope of absolutism being defeated in the Kongo. In much of Africa the substantial profits to be had from slaving led not only to its intensification and even more insecure property rights for the people but also to intense warfare and the destruction of many existing institutions; within a few centuries, any process of state centralization was totally reversed, and many of the African states had largely collapsed. Though some new, and sometimes powerful, states did form to exploit the slave trade, they were based on warfare and plunder. The critical juncture of the discovery of the Americas may have helped England develop inclusive institutions but it made institutions in Africa even more extractive.

Though the slave trade mostly ended after 1807, subsequent European colonialism not only threw into reverse nascent economic modernization in parts of southern and western Africa but also cut off any possibility of indigenous institutional reform. This meant that even outside of areas such as Congo, Madagascar, Namibia, and Tanzania, the areas where plunder, mass disruption, and even whole-scale murder were the rule, there was little chance for Africa to change its institutional path.

Even worse, the structures of colonial rule left Africa with a more complex and pernicious institutional legacy in the 1960s than at the start of the colonial period. The development of the political and economic institutions in many African colonies meant that rather than creating a critical juncture for improvements in their institutions, independence created an opening for unscrupulous leaders to take over and intensify the extraction that European colonialists presided over. The political incentives these structures created led to a style of politics that reproduced the historical patterns of insecure and inefficient property rights under states with strong absolutist tendencies but nonetheless lacking any centralized authority over their territories.

The Industrial Revolution has still not spread to Africa because that continent has experienced a long vicious circle of the persistence and re-creation of extractive political and economic institutions. Botswana is the exception. As we will see (this pagethis page), in the nineteenth century, King Khama, the grandfather of Botswana’s first prime minister at independence, Seretse Khama, initiated institutional changes to modernize the political and economic institutions of his tribe. Quite uniquely, these changes were not destroyed in the colonial period, partly as a consequence of Khama’s and other chiefs’ clever challenges to colonial authority. Their interplay with the critical juncture that independence from colonial rule created laid the foundations for Botswana’s economic and political success. It was another case of small historical differences mattering.

There is a tendency to see historical events as the inevitable consequences of deep-rooted forces. While we place great emphasis on how the history of economic and political institutions creates vicious and virtuous circles, contingency, as we have emphasized in the context of the development of English institutions, can always be a factor. Seretse Khama, studying in England in the 1940s, fell in love with Ruth Williams, a white woman. As a result, the racist apartheid regime in South Africa persuaded the English government to ban him from the protectorate, then called Bechuanaland (whose administration was under the High Commissioner of South Africa), and he resigned his kingship. When he returned to lead the anticolonial struggle, he did so with the intention not of entrenching the traditional institutions but of adapting them to the modern world. Khama was an extraordinary man, uninterested in personal wealth and dedicated to building his country. Most other African countries have not been so fortunate. Both things mattered, the historical development of institutions in Botswana and contingent factors that led these to be built on rather than overthrown or distorted as they were elsewhere in Africa.

IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, absolutism not so different from that in Africa or Eastern Europe was blocking the path of industrialization in much of Asia. In China, the state was strongly absolutist, and independent cities, merchants, and industrialists were either nonexistent or much weaker politically. China was a major naval power and heavily involved in long-distance trade centuries before the Europeans. But it had turned away from the oceans just at the wrong time, when Ming emperors decided in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries that increased long-distance trade and the creative destruction that it might bring would be likely to threaten their rule.

In India, institutional drift worked differently and led to the development of a uniquely rigid hereditary caste system that limited the functioning of markets and the allocation of labor across occupations much more severely than the feudal order in medieval Europe. It also underpinned another strong form of absolutism under the Mughal rulers. Most European countries had similar systems in the Middle Ages. Modern Anglo-Saxon surnames such as Baker, Cooper, and Smith are direct descendants of hereditary occupational categories. Bakers baked, coopers made barrels, and smiths forged metals. But these categories were never as rigid as Indian caste distinctions and gradually became meaningless as predictors of a person’s occupation. Though Indian merchants did trade throughout the Indian Ocean, and a major textile industry developed, the caste system and Mughal absolutism were serious impediments to the development of inclusive economic institutions in India. By the nineteenth century, things were even less hospitable for industrialization as India became an extractive colony of the English. China was never formally colonized by a European power, but after the English successfully defeated the Chinese in the Opium Wars between 1839 and 1842, and then again between 1856 and 1860, China had to sign a series of humiliating treaties and allow European exports to enter. As China, India, and others failed to take advantage of commercial and industrial opportunities, Asia, except for Japan, lagged behind as Western Europe was forging ahead.

THE COURSE OF institutional development that Japan charted in the nineteenth century again illustrates the interaction between critical junctures and small differences created by institutional drift. Japan, like China, was under absolutist rule. The Tokugawa family took over in 1600 and ruled over a feudal system that also banned international trade. Japan, too, faced a critical juncture created by Western intervention as four U.S. warships, commanded by Matthew C. Perry, entered Edo Bay in July 1853, demanding trade concessions similar to those England obtained from the Chinese in the Opium Wars. But this critical juncture played out very differently in Japan. Despite their proximity and frequent interactions, by the nineteenth century China and Japan had already drifted apart institutionally.

While Tokugawa rule in Japan was absolutist and extractive, it had only a tenuous hold on the leaders of the other major feudal domains and was susceptible to challenge. Even though there were peasant rebellions and civil strife, absolutism in China was stronger, and the opposition less organized and autonomous. There were no equivalents of the leaders of the other domains in China who could challenge the absolutist rule of the emperor and trace an alternative institutional path. This institutional difference, in many ways small relative to the differences separating China and Japan from Western Europe, had decisive consequences during the critical juncture created by the forceful arrival of the English and Americans. China continued in its absolutist path after the Opium Wars, while the U.S. threat cemented the opposition to Tokugawa rule in Japan and led to a political revolution, the Meiji Restoration, as we will see in chapter 10. This Japanese political revolution enabled more inclusive political institutions and much more inclusive economic institutions to develop, and laid the foundations for subsequent rapid Japanese growth, while China languished under absolutism.

How Japan reacted to the threat posed by U.S. warships, by starting a process of fundamental institutional transformation, helps us understand another aspect of the lay of the land around us: transitions from stagnation to rapid growth. South Korea, Taiwan, and finally China achieved breakneck rates of economic growth since the Second World War through a path similar to the one that Japan took. In each of these cases, growth was preceded by historic changes in the countries’ economic institutions—though not always in their political institutions, as the Chinese case highlights.

The logic of how episodes of rapid growth come to an abrupt end and are reversed is also related. In the same way that decisive steps toward inclusive economic institutions can ignite rapid economic growth, a sharp turn away from inclusive institutions can lead to economic stagnation. But more often, collapses of rapid growth, such as in Argentina or the Soviet Union, are a consequence of growth under extractive institutions coming to an end. As we have seen, this can happen either because of infighting over the spoils of extraction, leading to the collapse of the regime, or because the inherent lack of innovation and creative destruction under extractive institutions puts a limit on sustained growth. How the Soviets ran hard into these limits will be discussed in greater detail in the next chapter.

IF THE POLITICAL and economic institutions of Latin America over the past five hundred years were shaped by Spanish colonialism, those of the Middle East were shaped by Ottoman colonialism. In 1453 the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmet II captured Constantinople, making it their capital. During the rest of the century, the Ottomans conquered large parts of the Balkans and most of the rest of Turkey. In the first half of the sixteenth century, Ottoman rule spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. By 1566, at the death of Sultan Süleyman I, known as the Magnificent, their empire stretched from Tunisia in the East, through Egypt, all the way to Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula, and on to what is now modern Iraq. The Ottoman state was absolutist, with the sultan accountable to few and sharing power with none. The economic institutions the Ottomans imposed were highly extractive. There was no private property in land, which all formally belonged to the state. Taxation of land and agricultural output, together with loot from war, was the main source of government revenues. However, the Ottoman state did not dominate the Middle East in the same way that it could dominate its heartland in Anatolia or even to the extent that the Spanish state dominated Latin American society. The Ottoman state was continuously challenged by Bedouins and other tribal powers in the Arabian Peninsula. It lacked not only the ability to impose a stable order in much of the Middle East but also the administrative capacity to collect taxes. So it “farmed” them out to individuals, selling off the right to others to collect taxes in whatever way they could. These tax farmers became autonomous and powerful. Rates of taxation in the Middle Eastern territories were very high, varying between one-half or two-thirds of what farmers produced. Much of this revenue was kept by the tax farmers. Because the Ottoman state failed to establish a stable order in these areas, property rights were far from secure, and there was a great deal of lawlessness and banditry as armed groups vied for local control. In Palestine, for example, the situation was so dire that starting in the late sixteenth century, peasants left the most fertile land and moved up to mountainous areas, which gave them greater protection against banditry.

Extractive economic institutions in the urban areas of the Ottoman Empire were no less stifling. Commerce was under state control, and occupations were strictly regulated by guilds and monopolies. The consequence was that at the time of the Industrial Revolution the economic institutions of the Middle East were extractive. The region stagnated economically.

By the 1840s, the Ottomans were trying to reform institutions—for example, by reversing tax farming and getting locally autonomous groups under control. But absolutism persisted until the First World War, and reform efforts were thwarted by the usual fear of creative destruction and the anxiety among elite groups that they would lose economically or politically. While Ottoman reformers talked of introducing private property rights to land in order to increase agricultural productivity, the status quo persisted because of the desire for political control and taxation. Ottoman colonization was followed by European colonization after 1918. When European control ended, the same dynamics we have seen in sub-Saharan Africa took hold, with extractive colonial institutions taken over by independent elites. In some cases, such as the monarchy of Jordan, these elites were direct creations of the colonial powers, but this, too, happened frequently in Africa, as we will see. Middle Eastern countries without oil today have income levels similar to poor Latin American nations. They did not suffer from such immiserizing forces as the slave trade, and they benefited for a longer period from flows of technology from Europe. In the Middle Ages, the Middle East itself was also a relatively advanced part of the world economically. So today it is not as poor as Africa, but the majority of its people still live in poverty.

WE HAVE SEEN that neither geographic- nor cultural- nor ignorance-based theories are helpful for explaining the lay of the land around us. They do not provide a satisfactory account for the prominent patterns of world inequality: the fact that the process of economic divergence started with the Industrial Revolution in England during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then spread to Western Europe and to European settler colonies; the persistent divergence between different parts of the Americas; the poverty of Africa or the Middle East; the divergence between Eastern and Western Europe; and the transitions from stagnation to growth and the sometimes abrupt end to growth spurts. Our institutional theory does.

In the remaining chapters, we will discuss in greater detail how this institutional theory works and illustrate the wide range of phenomena it can account for. These range from the origins of the Neolithic Revolution to the collapse of several civilizations, either because of the intrinsic limits to growth under extractive institutions or because of limited steps toward inclusiveness being reversed.

We will see how and why decisive steps toward inclusive political institutions were taken during the Glorious Revolution in England. We will look more specifically at the following:

• How inclusive institutions emerged from the interplay of the critical juncture created by Atlantic trade and the nature of preexisting English institutions.• How these institutions persisted and became strengthened to lay the foundations for the Industrial Revolution, thanks in part to the virtuous circle and in part to fortunate turns of contingency.• How many regimes reigning over absolutist and extractive institutions steadfastly resisted the spread of new technologies unleashed by the Industrial Revolution.• How Europeans themselves stamped out the possibility of economic growth in many parts of the world that they conquered.• How the vicious circle and the iron law of oligarchy have created a powerful tendency for extractive institutions to persist, and thus the lands where the Industrial Revolution originally did not spread remain relatively poor.• Why the Industrial Revolution and other new technologies have not spread and are unlikely to spread to places around the world today where a minimum degree of centralization of the state hasn’t been achieved. Our discussion will also show that certain areas that managed to transform institutions in a more inclusive direction, such as France or Japan, or that prevented the establishment of extractive institutions, such as the United States or Australia, were more receptive to the spread of the Industrial Revolution and pulled ahead of the rest. As in England, this was not always a smooth process, and along the way, many challenges to inclusive institutions were overcome, sometimes because of the dynamics of the virtuous circle, sometimes thanks to the contingent path of history.

Finally, we will also discuss how the failure of nations today is heavily influenced by their institutional histories, how much policy advice is informed by incorrect hypotheses and is potentially misleading, and how nations are still able to seize critical junctures and break the mold to reform their institutions and embark upon a path to greater prosperity.

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