Failure of Logic: 'Why Nations Fail' Is an Unenlightening Skim of History

Gaylord Dold
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Why Nations Fail reads like a poorly written pamphlet dropped from the bomb-bay door of an airplane owned by a conservative think tank.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty

Publisher: Crown
Length: 544 pages
Author: Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson
Price: $30.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2012-03

Lewis Lapham, renowned editor at Harper’s for many years and himself a wary student of history, once wrote that “History is a work in progress, a constant writing and rewriting as opposed to museum-quality sculpture in milk-white marble.”

Sadly, the two economists (from MIT and Harvard, respectively) who have authored Why Nations Fail have constructed a museum-quality hypothesis about modern prosperity that not only fails to consider vital facts from paleobotany, medicine, geography, ethnography and plate tectonics (among other things), but also accomplishes much of its sleight of hand in argument by the post hoc method of assuming as a premise what must be proven.

Setting out to examine why nations differ in wealth and power, the authors focus on institutional factors, concluding that some nations (apparently, only nations are allowed prosperity) were able to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution and the technologies and methods of organization that it brought while others were unable to do so. Continuing, they argue that countries now differ in economic success because of their different economic and political institutions.

Prosperity is brought about by “inclusive” institutions, organized property rights, courts, police and government bureaucracies that serve citizens’ needs and give people incentives to work hard, save and innovate. On the other hand, “extractive” institutions exist to benefit elites, government officials, the rich, or narrow factions (clans, chiefs, political leaders etc.). Power is thus constrained in an inclusive nation, allowing citizens access to money, votes, esteem and hope.

Much of Why Nations Fail entails an examination of narrow realms of political history like England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, the rise of the factory system in the early 19th century, and the French and American revolutions.

The authors point to side-by-side political/economic systems as indicative of the fulcrum of success and failure, taking particular pride in pointing out that Nogales, Mexico, (poor) and Nogales, Arizona, (prosperous) differ only in the fact that one exists under an extractive system while the other operates under an inclusive one. The same, the authors point out, can be said for North and South Korea, or East and West Germany.

Prosperity, they conclude, has a number of steps, including open inclusive institutions, innovative technology approaches, acceptance of “creative destruction” (which means allowing old forms of economic activity to die), market-based economies and a strong, corruption-free central government. The authors cite as counter-examples the Ottoman Empire’s resistance to building roads and trade and the Hapsburg reluctance to build railroads, among others. This is, obviously, the post hoc side of their argument.

Very much is wrong with Why Nations Fail. As Jared Diamond (author of Guns, Germs and Steel, a far better book about prosperity) points out in the New York Review of Books, the authors here rely on many unsupported factual arguments, like the one they make that inclusive institutions sponsored the rise of agriculture, a claim contradicted by a century of research by paleobiologists who have shown that a wealth of wild plant and animal species in certain parts of the world drove agriculture’s emergence.

Our two economists fail to understand the vital importance of glaciation on soil ecology in the Northern Hemisphere, the extreme effect of Africa’s disease vectors as a negative to human and animal development, and Africa’s lack of navigable rivers, its tropical rains which leach soils and plant nutrients, and its lack of long mountain ranges. The authors cavalierly dismiss geography and culture as factors in the rise and fall of peoples, tribes, and nations.

Why Nations Fail also assumes prosperity as a constant not needing definition. As late as the '30s, most rural Americans were living without electricity or indoor plumbing, the country’s African-Americans continued to live under an apartheid system, and .S corporations were robbing Central and Latin America of economic goods on a regular basis, overthrowing governments, and even assassinating political leaders.

In fact, the “inclusive institutions” of England (the authors’ paradigm prosperous nation) regularly plundered, enslaved or colonized large portions of humanity in order to profit, while plunging masses of their own people into misery. Thus, one man’s “inclusive” might be another’s “extractive.”

Our own American prosperity (whatever that is) surely comes at a high price — think of stress, obesity, diabetes, mental illness, family dysfunction, crime and pollution, and our American history includes the genocide of native populations, environmental disaster and continual war.

Why Nations Fail gives no credit to happiness, health or spirituality. Surely, unhappy, unhealthy and unspiritual nations can be said to have failed too. For example, Bhutan, one of the poorest nations in Asia, is often judged the happiest in the UN’s happiness index. In fact, psychologists have long known that money, up to a point, buys a certain amount of security but happiness is elusive and can’t be bought. And many modern economists have taken to incorporating other values into their computations of prosperity instead of staking everything on GDP.

Mostly, Why Nations Fail reads like a poorly written pamphlet dropped from the bomb-bay door of an airplane owned by a conservative think tank. One has to think that the Roman republic must have thought itself the most prosperous empire in the world — a museum-quality model for the poor Parthians or Gauls to emulate.






Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.


3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.