James A. Robinson and Daron Acemoglu's Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty is one of those "big books" -- an attempt to envision a grand unifying theory that the current of era of post-Marxist awareness that modern capitalism has kicked the Anthropocene into high gear necessarily evokes. I found it interesting and often persuasive, though, as with all such efforts, only time will tell how predictive their thinking proves.
Here's how the authors describe their project:
That's all pretty dense and abstract. Our authors eagerly apply their model concretely. Perhaps it's not surprising that they are pretty confident that they can predict what countries will be rich in coming decades:
On the other hand, they are also pretty sure that the continuing strength of extractive political institutions (arbitrary and corrupt rule by a self-selecting elite) ensures that China will reach a limit to the extension of its somewhat inclusive economic development.
Though skeptical about China's potential to generate a virtuous circle in which inclusive economic and political institutions support each other, they are much more optimistic about developments in contemporary Brazil.
I was fascinated by this thesis for use in thinking about how development occurs within nations when countries are treated as distinct entities. But I wondered how these authors' extractive v. inclusive frame worked in the context of a global system that exploits and exacerbates poor countries' internal contradictions to the benefit not only of rich global elites but also to some extent of the general populations of rich countries. There are many examples of transnational extractive institutional arrangements. Remember the WTO, the IMF, the World Bank? Can a framework so rooted in the experience of particular discrete states be usefully applied to the era of universal global capitalism? There are hints here, but the nation is the primary unit of analysis -- and possibly not the true way the planet is presently divided, if it ever was.
I read this book during the U.S. election campaign and couldn't shake the image of Romney as the slippery champion of extractive elites who promote their interests by way of the Republican Party. The book's frame describes these forces to a T. Republicans increasingly aim to interrupt the U.S. virtuous circle embodied in electoral institutions that maintain some measure of inclusive equality among citizens. It's not just attachment to patriotic hokum when progressives stick up for the democratic rights of all of us. Robinson and Acemoglu remind us that the decisions about what kind of country we are going to have happen in history -- there's nothing that ensures we'll keep our relatively inclusive economic and political institutions, though inertia helps. These inclusive institutions are worth defending and these authors would contend that organized collective defense can matter.