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Why Nations Fail
Cover of Why Nations Fail
Why Nations Fail
The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Borrow Borrow Borrow

Brilliant and engagingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has stumped the experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?

Is it culture, the weather, geography? Perhaps ignorance of what the right policies are?

Simply, no. None of these factors is either definitive or destiny. Otherwise, how to explain why Botswana has become one of the fastest growing countries in the world, while other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence?

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it). Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities. The economic success thus spurred was sustained because the government became accountable and responsive to citizens and the great mass of people. Sadly, the people of the north have endured decades of famine, political repression, and very different economic institutions--with no end in sight. The differences between the Koreas is due to the politics that created these completely different institutional trajectories.

Based on fifteen years of original research Acemoglu and Robinson marshall extraordinary historical evidence from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, the United States, and Africa to build a new theory of political economy with great relevance for the big questions of today, including:

- China has built an authoritarian growth machine. Will it continue to grow at such high speed and overwhelm the West?
- Are America's best days behind it? Are we moving from a virtuous circle in which efforts by elites to aggrandize power are resisted to a vicious one that enriches and empowers a small minority?
- What is the most effective way to help move billions of people from the rut of poverty to prosperity? More
philanthropy from the wealthy nations of the West? Or learning the hard-won lessons of Acemoglu and Robinson's breakthrough ideas on the interplay between inclusive political and economic institutions?

Why Nations Fail will change the way you look at--and understand--the world.

Brilliant and engagingly written, Why Nations Fail answers the question that has stumped the experts for centuries: Why are some nations rich and others poor, divided by wealth and poverty, health and sickness, food and famine?

Is it culture, the weather, geography? Perhaps ignorance of what the right policies are?

Simply, no. None of these factors is either definitive or destiny. Otherwise, how to explain why Botswana has become one of the fastest growing countries in the world, while other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence?

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson conclusively show that it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success (or lack of it). Korea, to take just one of their fascinating examples, is a remarkably homogeneous nation, yet the people of North Korea are among the poorest on earth while their brothers and sisters in South Korea are among the richest. The south forged a society that created incentives, rewarded innovation, and allowed everyone to participate in economic opportunities. The economic success thus spurred was sustained because the government became accountable and responsive to citizens and the great mass of people. Sadly, the people of the north have endured decades of famine, political repression, and very different economic institutions--with no end in sight. The differences between the Koreas is due to the politics that created these completely different institutional trajectories.

Based on fifteen years of original research Acemoglu and Robinson marshall extraordinary historical evidence from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, the United States, and Africa to build a new theory of political economy with great relevance for the big questions of today, including:

- China has built an authoritarian growth machine. Will it continue to grow at such high speed and overwhelm the West?
- Are America's best days behind it? Are we moving from a virtuous circle in which efforts by elites to aggrandize power are resisted to a vicious one that enriches and empowers a small minority?
- What is the most effective way to help move billions of people from the rut of poverty to prosperity? More
philanthropy from the wealthy nations of the West? Or learning the hard-won lessons of Acemoglu and Robinson's breakthrough ideas on the interplay between inclusive political and economic institutions?

Why Nations Fail will change the way you look at--and understand--the world.

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  • From the book Preface

    This book is about the huge differences in incomes and standards of living that separate the rich countries of the world, such as the United States, Great Britain, and Germany, from the poor, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and South Asia.

    As we write this preface, North Africa and the Middle East have been shaken by the "Arab Spring" started by the so-called Jasmine Revolution, which was initially ignited by public outrage over the selfimmolation of a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, on December 17, 2010. By January 14, 2011, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia since 1987, had stepped down, but far from abating, the revolutionary fervor against the rule of privileged elites in Tunisia was getting stronger and had already spread to the rest of the Middle East. Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt with a tight grip for almost thirty years, was ousted on February 11, 2011. The fates of the regimes in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, and Yemen are unknown as we complete this preface.

    The roots of discontent in these countries lie in their poverty. The average Egyptian has an income level of around 12 percent of the average citizen of the United States and can expect to live ten fewer years; 20 percent of the population is in dire poverty. Though these differences are significant, they are actually quite small compared with those between the United States and the poorest countries in the world, such as North Korea, Sierra Leone, and Zimbabwe, where well over half the population lives in poverty.

    Why is Egypt so much poorer than the United States? What are the constraints that keep Egyptians from becoming more prosperous? Is the poverty of Egypt immutable, or can it be eradicated? A natural way to start thinking about this is to look at what the Egyptians themselves are saying about the problems they face and why they rose up against the Mubarak regime. Noha Hamed, twenty-four, a worker at an advertising agency in Cairo, made her views clear as she demonstrated in Tahrir Square: "We are suffering from corruption, oppression and bad education. We are living amid a corrupt system which has to change." Another in the square, Mosaab El Shami, twenty, a pharmacy student, concurred: "I hope that by the end of this year we will have an elected government and that universal freedoms are applied and that we put an end to the corruption that has taken over this country." The protestors in Tahrir Square spoke with one voice about the corruption of the government, its inability to deliver public services, and the lack of equality of opportunity in their country. They particularly complained about repression and the absence of political rights. As Mohamed ElBaradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, wrote on Twitter on January 13, 2011, "Tunisia: repression + absence of social justice + denial of channels for peaceful change = a ticking bomb." Egyptians and Tunisians both saw their economic problems as being fundamentally caused by their lack of political rights. When the protestors started to formulate their demands more systematically, the fi rst twelve immediate demands posted by Wael Khalil, the software engineer and blogger who emerged as one of the leaders of the Egyptian protest movement, were all focused on political change. Issues such as raising the minimum wage appeared only among the transitional demands that were to be implemented later.

    To Egyptians, the things that have held them back include an ineffective and corrupt state and a society where they cannot use their talent, ambition, ingenuity, and what education they can get. But they also recognize that the roots of these...
About the Author-
  • Daron Acemoglu is the Killian Professor of Economics at MIT. In 2005 he received the John Bates Clark Medal awarded to economists under forty judged to have made the most significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. He is also the co-author of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.
    James A. Robinson, a political scientist and an economist, is the David Florence Professor of Government at Harvard University. A world-renowned expert on Latin America and Africa, he has worked in Botswana, Mauritius, Sierra Leone, and South Africa. He is also the co-author of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    February 1, 2012
    Following up on their earlier collaboration (Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, 2005), two scholars examine why some nations thrive and others don't. Neither geography, nor culture, nor mistaken policies explain the vast differences in prosperity among nations. The reasons for world inequality, write Acemoglu (Economics/MIT) and Robinson (Government/Harvard Univ.), are rooted in politics, in whether nations have developed inclusive political institutions and a sufficiently centralized state to lay the groundwork for economic institutions critical for growth. In turn, these economic institutions give citizens liberty to pursue work that suits their talents, a fairly enforced set of rules and incentives to pursue education and technological innovation. When these conditions are not met, write the authors, when the political and economic institutions are "extractive," failure surely follows. It matters not if the Tsars or the Bolsheviks governed Russia, if the Qing dynasty or Mao ruled China, if Ferdinand and Isabella or General Franco reigned in Spain--all absolutism is the same, erecting historically predictable barriers to prosperity. The critical distinction between, say, North and South Korea, lies in the vastly different institutional legacies on either side, one open and responsive to the needs and aspirations of society, the other closed with power narrowly distributed for the benefit of a few. In their wide-ranging discussion, Acemoglu and Robinson address big-picture concepts like "critical junctures" in history--the Black Death, the discovery of the Americas, the Glorious Revolution--which disrupt the existing political and economic balance and can abruptly change the trajectory of nations for better or worse. They also offer a series of small but telling stories in support of their thesis: how the wealth of Bill Gates differs from the riches of Carlos Slim, why Queen Elizabeth I rejected a patent for a knitting machine, how the inmates took over the asylum in colonies like Jamestown and New South Wales and why the Ottoman Empire suppressed the printing press. For economics and political-science students, surely, but also for the general reader who will appreciate how gracefully the authors wear their erudition.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    November 15, 2011

    No, it's not geography or technology or the clash of civilizations that determine a nation's success or failure, it's that nation's particular institutions--the economic, political, and social rules that both shape and bind societies. So argue Acemoglu, Killian Professor of Economics at MIT, and Robinson, Florence Professor of Government at Harvard. Provocative stuff, backed by lots of brain power, and I like the broad-ranging approach.

    Copyright 2011 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Jared Diamond, New York Review of Books

    "Should be required reading for politicians and anyone concerned with economic development."

  • Washington Post "...bracing, garrulous, wildly ambitious and ultimately hopeful. It may, in fact, be a bit of a masterpiece."
  • Kirkus Reviews "For economics and political-science students, surely, but also for the general reader who will appreciate how gracefully the authors wear their erudition."
  • Library Journal "Provocative stuff; backed by lots of brain power."
  • Financial Times "This is an intellectually rich book that develops an important thesis with verve. It should be widely read."
  • The Daily "A probing . . . look at the roots of political and economic success . . . large and ambitious new book."
  • The Wall Street Journal "Why Nations Fail is a splendid piece of scholarship and a showcase of economic rigor."
  • Bloomberg BusinessWeek "Ranging from imperial Rome to modern Botswana, this book will change the way people think about the wealth and poverty of nations...as ambitious as Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel."
  • The Observer (UK) "The main strength of this book is beyond the power of summary: it is packed, from beginning to end, with historical vignettes that are both erudite and fascinating. As Jared Diamond says on the cover: 'It will make you a spellbinder at parties.' But it will also make you think."
  • Bloomberg (Jonathan Alter) "A brilliant book."
  • The New York Times (Chrystia Freeland) "Why Nations Fail is a wildly ambitious work that hopscotches through history and around the world to answer the very big question of why some countries get rich and others don't."
  • Steven Levitt, coauthor of Freakonomics "Why Nations Failis a truly awesome book. Acemoglu and Robinson tackle one of the most important problems in the social sciences--a question that has bedeviled leading thinkers for centuries--and offer an answer that is brilliant in its simplicity and power. A wonderfully readable mix of history, political science, and economics, this book will change the way we think about economic development. Why Nations Fail is a must-read book."
  • Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize--winning author of the bestsellers "You will have three reasons to love this book. It's about national income differences within the modern world, perhaps the biggest problem facing the world today. It's peppered with fascinating stories that will make you a spellbinder at cocktail parties--such as why Botswana is prospering and Sierra Leone isn't. And it's a great read. Like me, you may succumb to reading it in one go, and then you may come back to it again and again."
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The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
Daron Acemoglu
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