Jeff Sachs is right about Why Nations Fail

Reading the transcript of Jeff Sachs’ very interesting talk with Tyler Cowen, I had to stop myself from cheering aloud at the following passage. It captures perfectly the reaction I had myself when reading Why Nations Fail. Overall I found it a disappointing, wrongheaded and generally overhyped book, and the way Acemoglu and Robinson deal with (or, really, fail to deal with) China lays bare the problems in their approach. Sachs puts it better than I could, so I will just quote him in full:

Acemoglu and Robinson’s book Why Nations Fail was one of my least favorite books. I think it is just a bad book, because it takes one thought and tries to drive it as the only explanation of history. That’s not a good approach in my view to history, which is a very interesting, complex tableau.

They missed one fundamental point right from the start, which is that when you look at development, there are at least two fundamental drivers, not just one. The one that they talk about is innovation, and innovation as being a fundamental driver of growth. There’s a lot of truth to that in the history of the world.

But there’s a second fundamental aspect when we look out in the world and say, “Who’s doing well? Who’s doing badly? Why?” and so forth. That’s what is sometimes called “catching up.” The phenomenon of catching up is very different from the phenomenon of forging ahead at the front of the technology horizon.

When you take that simple distinction, it helps to explain a lot of the post-1960 question that you’re asking. The most successful countries in the world in the last 50 years have been basically the East Asian economies and Southeast Asian economies.

Very rarely do they look like the textbook model of Acemoglu and Robinson of the free market economy and so forth. In fact, the People’s Republic of China they characterize as just — that’s an anomaly that is going to collapse in the future so we don’t have to explain it now.

I think that’s a huge mistake and a misunderstanding of the basics. China’s in a catching-up mode. The institutions of catching up are quite different from the institutions of being the technology leader, for example. Just understanding that would give them a little more clarity about institutions, per se.

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