Critical Junctures and Path Dependency in “Why Nations Fail”: Implications for U.S. Foreign Aid Policy

Greeted with wide acclaim, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Povertyshould put to bed all debate on using foreign aid to promote economic development on a national level.

Authors Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson effectively deploy path dependency to explain the trajectories of the political institutions that form the core of their argument: Nations with “inclusive” political institutions succeed economically whereas those saddled with extractive” political institutions fail. Citing cases from myriad times and places, the authors demonstrate the relationship between political institutions and economic development. The authors tether their argument to Schumpeter’s idea of creative destruction in the marketplace: No creative destruction, no long-term development. Nations encumbered by extractive political institutions typically privilege monopoly. And so, over time, their economies atrophy.

So far, so good. In deploying path dependency to explain why institutions, once in place, tend to persist, authors add a solid piece of research to a literature that includes persuasive and important studies from Paul Krugman and Robert Higgs (and show that path dependency is an ideologically independent analytical tool). Notwithstanding their clear, concise, and compelling prose, however, the authors do less well in explaining the origins of divergent dependent paths. This is disappointing, because knowing and understanding the point of origin is crucial to understanding the dependent path. Because points of origin are often associated with cataclysmic events, however, one thing is clear: Development economics has no chance of establishing a new point of origin for nations encumbered by extractive political institutions.

Acemoglu and Robinson call their points of origin “critical junctures.” As they explain, critical junctures “are major events that disrupt the existing political and economic balance in one or many societies.” Critical junctures launch nations down their respective dependent paths. Because of small differences in initial conditions, the same critical juncture can send nations in radically different directions. But a lot is murky here in terms of understanding the historical foundation of a particular critical juncture. In many cases, I found myself accepting the facts that the authors present as the starting point and then going along for the narrative ride. Origins happen, and until another critical juncture occurs, a nation is pretty much locked in an institutional straightjacket.

What the authors do show is that we really have very little control over the initial conditions that propel nations down a particular path. And if paths are truly as dependent as the authors insist, it is extremely difficult—especially for outsiders—to get a nation to change course, that is, reform its political institutions. Whatever else they accomplish in elaborating the findings of their research, Acemoglu and Robinson bolster the argument, made by economists from P. T. Bauer to William Easterly, that foreign aid generally does nothing, and really can do nothing, to promote economic development.

Here’s my short list of the most important critical junctures in the book:

  • The Black Death
  • The French Revolution
  • The Glorious Revolution—a relatively peaceful resolution to decades of bloody civil war

If pestilence, famine, and war are requisites for institutional change, what chance do USAID, the World Bank, and the various UN agencies have to affect reform, armed only with dollars and expertise?

Less apocalyptic critical junctures described by Acemoglu and Robinson give no cause for cheer among aid advocates, either:

  • Of more than 50 African nations, only Botswana enjoys inclusive political institutions, and only because its leaders acted on their own initiative and in the face of conventional wisdom to break the institutional chains that have shackled all of the other nations on the continent.
  • Notwithstanding the arguments of the authors, the weight of the evidence suggests that America enjoys inclusive political institutions and Latin America does not above all because of climate, geology, geography topography, and differences in the demography of indigenous populations. (Score a point here for Jared Diamond.) English and Spanish colonists set out from Europe with similar intentions. In contrast to their Spanish counterparts, English colonists unhappily found no gold or silver, and in any case, encountered no large concentrations of peoples to enslave. The indentured servants that they imported in their stead proved to be a poor substitute. Paths diverged.

There is little in these stories to guide contemporary aid missionaries.

Why Nations Fail provides no justification for Washington maintaining its foreign aid apparatus. The general reader might close the book relieved to know that China, America’s greatest adversary in the international political economy, will inevitably falter because of its extractive political institutions. Policymakers and practitioners operating in the aid arena have no similar cause for relief. The authors leave some wiggle room in their conclusion, but in my reading, Why Nations Fail closes the door on using aid to foreign governments to foster economic development.

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