Catholic Emancipation as a Constitutional Revolution 

Religious toleration is important to Britain’s historical self-image as a bastion of liberty against continental tyrants like Hitler, Napoleon, and Louis XIV.

But for much of the 18th century, Catholics in Britain were barred from government service, the army and navy, the law, and the universities. Formally, they were not allowed to inherit land or even marry with Catholic rites (though in practice there were well-recognized workarounds). Catholic priests faced life imprisonment and Catholic schools were illegal. When these laws were liberalized in 1778, this provoked the worst riot in early modern British history, the Gordon Riots.

Frazer details the travails involved in passing Catholic Emancipation. The King and the Anglican establishment were strenuously opposed to liberalizing laws against Catholics. Despite the fact that he had Catholic friends, George III opposed emancipation because it violated his coronation oath to champion the Protestant religion.

Prime Minister William Pitt proposed emancipation in 1801 and offered to resign if the King disapproved. This prompted George III’s descent into paranoia or “madness”. Frazer notes that

“There had already been a bout of this madness in 1788 and 1789, with the younger George as temporary Regent. Whatever the actual illness from which he periodically suffered, it included among the symptoms an obessional quality which certain topics unquestionably aroused. Catholic Emancipation, that appalling prospect which would cause him to be damned for breaking his sacred vow, was prominent among them:

None of this is mentioned in the 1996 film, featuring Nigel Hawthrone, of course!


Why did Catholic emancipation provoke this reaction? The British state faced a crisis in the early 19th century. Most accounts focus on the French and Industrial Revolutions, which disrupted the existing social order and alarmed ruling elites. Religion is scarcely mentioned. Thus from a Marxian perspective, the Chartists and the passing of the Great Reform Act — which extended the franchise to property holders — represent the bourgeoisie, demanding political rights to match their economic power. Acemoglu and Robinson model the transition from oligarchy to democracy as a game theoretic problem, in which the threat of revolution from below obliged elites to grant democratic rights, in order to make the promise of economic redistribution credible. Neither spends much time on religion.

But an older historical tradition saw the Catholic Emancipation as among the key causes of the constitutional crisis that the British state underwent in the 1820s and 1830s. According to John Derry (1963, 95):

‘The Protestant ascendancy was part of the Constitution: one might say without it the Constitution would never have existed. The Coronation Oath pledged the monarch to maintain the Protestant religion as by law established, while the Act of Settlement ensured a Protestant succession. Both the landed gentry and the commercial classes — as well as the urban mob — believed that if the Protestant ascendancy went the gates were open to unimaginable horrors.”

To understand why this was so, and why Catholic Emancipation paved the way for further liberalization and the rise of liberal democracy, let us revisit the argument of Persecution & Toleration.

The significance of the Protestant Ascendency reflected Reformation England’s Church-State equilibrium. The treatment of Catholics is a canonical instance of what we call condition toleration. Catholicism per se was not illegal, but it was constrained, and these constraints were justified in political terms. Throughout the 17th century, Protestants feared a return of Catholicism which they associated with unrestrained autocratic rule. For Henry Capel MP in 1679:

“From popery came the notion of a standing army and arbitrary power. Formerly the Crown of Spain, and now France, supports the root of this popery amongst us; but lay popery flat and there’s an end of arbitrary government and power. It is a mere chimera without popery”.

It was on these grounds that the Whigs sought to disbar James II from the throne. After the Glorious Revolution, the Toleration Act of 1689 excluded both Catholics and atheists. And famously, the great advocate of religious toleration, John Locke rejected toleration for Catholics, as they were loyal to a foreign prince.

The religious aspect of the Glorious Revolution is neglected in the seminal accounts of it in the political economy and economic history literatures (i.e. here). But the Glorious Revolution settlement did not only guarantee the independence of Parliament from the Crown, it also safeguarded the political position of the Anglican Church by excluding Catholics from positions of power. In return, the Church of England remained the mainstay of state. As J.C.D. Clark (1985, 438) observed:

“The Church justified its established status on a principle of toleration — the toleration of other forms of Trinitarian Christian worship. It drew a sharp distinction between this and the admission of Nonconformists to political power.”

This was particularly significant in Ireland, where the Protestant Ascendency ensured the political and economic dominance of the Anglo-Scottish Protestant elite over the Catholic majority.

Now 18th century Britain was much less reliant on religion to legitimate political authority than prior regimes. As Jared Rubin argues, one consequence of the Reformation was a decline in the legitimizing power of religion; it was superseded by institutions such as parliaments, which represented economic rather than religious elites.

Other things had changed too. The ascendancy of the Church of England was seen as crucial to state security in post-Reformation England. But this was no longer the case by 1800. Following the initial break with Rome in the 16th century, these fears had not been groundless: Protestant Englishmen felt threatened by revanchist Catholic powers such as Spain and France and, in the Gunpowder plot, Catholic conspirators threatened the death of the king and the destruction of Parliament. The fact that the vast majority of Catholics were loyal to crown and country was not enough to alleviate Protestant fears, which occasionally erupted into persecutions, such as those that accompanied the Popish plot.

Following the French Revolution, however, Catholicism was no longer associated with an aggressively expansionist continental power. The old enemy was now secular. Catholic priests fleeing Revolutionary persecution found sanctuary in Britain. And by the 1820s there was a growing pragmatic and liberal opinion in favor of Catholic Emancipation. Lord Palmerston’s argument, as summarized by Frazer (p 157), was that

“. . . times had inevitably changed, and the argument to history could not be sustained: what if Nelson, Fox and Burke had all happened to be Catholics by birth. Would it have been right to deprive the nation of their services?”

Liberal Protestant clergy further argued that

“a Catholic layman who finds all the honor of the state open to him, will not, I think, run into treason and rebellion” (quoted from Frazer, 2018, 158).

Translated into the framework of Persecution & Toleration: the equilibrium had changed. Catholics no longer posed a political threat. The legitimatizing power of the Church of England was waning. Population growth, urbanization — particularly the rise of new urban centers — as well as immigration from Ireland, undermined the ideological hold of the Church of England.

Nevertheless, when the issue finally came to head in 1827–1829, it brought down the government. Catholic Emancipation was the Brexit of its day. When the pro-emancipation George Canning became Prime Minister, its leading opponents, the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel resigned and the Tory party split into two. Canning then died. But the move towards liberalization now had momentum. Agitation in Ireland raised fears of revolution. In 1828 the Test Act was Repealed. Wellington and Peel reluctantly switched sides. 1829 Catholic Emancipation passed, despite the fact that King George IV disapproved of it.

Thus according to J.C.D. Clark’s insightful (though contested) account:

“As significant were the consequences of Emancipation: the belief that the sovereign would not resist massive constitutional change; and the profound schism which now rent the party of Wellington and Peel” (Clark, 1985, 536).

Catholic Emancipation thus set in motion a more general constitutional revolution. Both Whigs and Tory ultras who opposed Catholic Emancipation lost faith in the existing Parliamentary system. A fundamental pillar of society, the Church-State alliance, had been undermined. It was followed by the Great Reform Act and the rise of liberal democracy. In Clark’s word’s

“. . . the effect of the measures of 1828–1832 was to open the floodgates to a deluge of Whig or radical reform aimed against the characteristics institutions of the former social order . . . English society can point to few events which changed the pattern on the ground with the totality and the dynamism of 1776, 1789 or 1917: 1832 was not such an event. It was, however, decisive in many other ways, for it dealt a death blow to England’s old order. In the process, it produced what in other disciplines is called a ‘paradigm shift’”(Clark 1985, 555–556).

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 8): Conclusion

Far from the custom of assigning to cultural factors, or educational, or geographic or relative to the particular constitution of the ruling elites, the three works reviewed – Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, by Douglass C. North; The Elusive Quest for Growth, by William Easterly and Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, state an explanation of the progress and decline of nations articulated on abstract incentives, which serve as a structure in which frame the rational agent makes his choices. The four authors have a common reference to methodological individualism, but such an individual agent does not make decisions in a vacuum, but inserted within a framework of incentives.

That such incentives, to act as points of reference for individual action, should materialize historically, does not mean that such conditions for action come from a particular circumstance of time and place, but that they depend on an abstract structure that relates to different terms and that is present in every phenomenon of human interaction.

To finish, it is worth referring to the conclusions reached by North in his referenced work: the case of the two successive Spanish Americas, the Habsburg and the Bourbons. The first extended from the discovery and colonization of America to the early eighteenth century. The viceroyalties of America enjoyed great political autonomy – Spanish immigration had been little and a “Creole” elite had developed – and they were closed to trade, which was limited to the “export” of gold to Spain. With the arrival of the Bourbons at the beginning of the 18th century and the implementation of their Reforms – which from the economic point of view were a resounding success both in Spain and in America – the relationship was reversed: political power passed into the hands of the “Peninsular Spaniards” and an opening of a more fluid trade between the metropolis and its colonies was launched. North explains that the independence movements could be successful due to a transitory alliance between the sectors that wanted to return to the Habsburg system and those who wanted to deepen the modernizing and free-market impulse of the Bourbons. Once achieved independence, these two currents came into conflict, which, according to the author, would extend until today.

According to North’s thesis on Spanish America, there would be two political patterns in tension: on the one hand, an elitist politician who is open to the economy and on the other a “popular” current that is traditionally protectionist. In the second half of the 19th century, success belonged to the “Bourbon pattern” and, in the 20th Century, the “Habsburg pattern” prevailed. In terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it would be the dispute between a combination of extractive political institutions with inclusive economic institutions and another combination of inclusive political institutions with extractive economic institutions. Of course, in practice, moments of extractive political and economic institutions were also known, as well as short-lived experiences of inclusive institutions, both politically and economically.

The notion of polarized societies used by Easterly can serve as a way to deepen this analysis. It is much clearer to find problems of countries with societies divided into distant and dissimilar regions, in which the policy is expressly articulated as a function of tribes or ethnic groups and which the dispute over public policies expressly favors or harms a another ethnic group. However, as it has been stated, it is not ethnicity or nationality that determines the low economic and institutional performance of a country, but the polarization structure itself, whatever the functions in which such polarization is expressed (language, religion, ethnicity, ideology, etc.). Understanding these latter is fundamental to be able to provide a common thread for a principle of solution.

Just as on the political level an express agreement can be reached on the way to choose who exercises public power and under what conditions, Easterly states a series of conditions related to economic institutions whose agreement would allow for economic growth, regardless of the region, culture, or education of the ruling class of each country. Throughout The Elusive Quest for Growth you can find mentioned to free trade as a main factor of progress, monetary stability and exchange freedom as examples of clear and equitable rules, a state that participates in large infrastructure works but that refrain from arbitrating in the distribution of economic rents among various groups, a low level of public indebtedness, stability in property rights and an independent justice that allows individuals to innovate and save, as well as support programs and incentives to members of society who are immersed in poverty traps.

As mentioned, many times the policy -especially when, in the terms of Acemoglu & Robinson, it is inclusive- consists of the composition of interests of various kinds for the purpose of articulating a government program. From the work of the authors commented here, it can be inferred that, just as there is an agreement on the political plane regarding the rules of the democratic game, which include periodic elections, limited re-elections and division of powers, among others, there should also be a consensus in a body of economic institutions that should be left out of political negotiation, so that economic policy is as neutral as possible against the conflicting interests of which a country with a polarized society is composed.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 7, and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 7): Breaking the mold

This role of entrepreneurs also depends on an abstract characteristic of technological knowledge: it works in a manner contrary to that of most goods, since it is more productive to the extent that it is more widespread in the population. This characteristic of the abstract nature of technological knowledge is related to the phenomenon of the combination of skills (matching of skills): the negative side of creative destruction lies in substitution phenomena (a computer program of inventory management increases the productivity of work saving the salaries of the army of employees who used to carry them with pencil and paper), but the positive side comes from the phenomena of complementarity.

As William Easterly exemplifies, the cardiac surgeon will be more productive in a first world hospital, where he will have specialized nurses, other qualified doctors like him, a sophisticated system of hospital administration, and so on, being the only cardiac surgeon in a hospital. city ​​of the third world, where it does not have professionalized nurses, nor the help of other medical colleagues, working in a hospital in which he himself has to deal with administrative issues. If there were only substitution relations, it would be convenient for a doctor to practice his profession in the most remote place possible. However, as relations of complementarity of knowledge exponentially increase the productivity of the professionals involved, the doctor will find it more convenient to practice in a health center that has the largest number of doctors and paramedics possible.

The latter does lead to the phenomenon of “traps”: any rational agent, who maximizes the utility of their choices will be discouraged to deepen their studies if they perceive that they can not give any use to their education. There are the cases in which a person discovers that in his country there is no technology or the necessary number of professionals to develop a specific activity, or that, existing, you will find prohibited the exercise of their profession based on restrictions regarding their race, caste, social class, sex, etc. Since, rationally, a person who is included in a particular group under which he will be found forbidden or will be hindered the exercise of his profession, he will find as the most rational of their alternatives to abandon their studies, so that their chances of progress will no longer be limited only by legal or social barriers, but because of their lack of suitability for high-paying functions. Such are the so-called “poverty traps.”

There are also wealth traps. There are those cases in which the individual knows that he is within a favored group or in which he knows a large number of professionals and, therefore, invests time and money in his education because he knows that he has high chances of success, which will then be confirmed. Obviously, such phenomena of divergence generates another problem, addressed both by Easterly and by Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson, which is that of polarized societies.

Easterly affirms that it is the exchange of goods and services, through the mutual benefits that they report to the parties that participate in it, the main source of wealth generation. Where individuals are allowed to exchange, in a stable institutional framework with a stable currency, is where prosperity flourishes. However, Easterly recognizes that bad luck can devastate nations, as are the cases of geological and climatic phenomena such as earthquakes, tsunamis or mudslides, as well as recognizing that the situations of individuals involved in a poverty trap can only be resolved through an active public policy that not only provides education, but also establishes the conditions so that the recipients of that educational system can count on certain expectations that they will be able to apply that knowledge acquired through education and that, consequently, it is reasonable to study.

Just as the bad star can affect the economic performance of the countries, so can a favorable conjuncture, such as the case of a transitory improvement in terms of exchange of a given country. But this favorable circumstance can become a counter-march. Easterly explains that, for a simple statistical matter, it is very difficult for both a nation and an individual to always remain on the crest of the wave, over the years everything tends to return to the average. The problem occurs when a country -or a person, too- got used to a certain level of spending in the boom years and intends to maintain it through debt or emisionism. We come to the cases in which, according to Easterly, the government can “kill the growth.” Public debt and inflation generate capital consumption and, consequently, poverty.

Another way that governments have to discourage growth is through corruption. Not only because it means a transfer of resources from productive activities to unproductive activities, but because it also means a bad signal for citizens. However, in cases of corruption, as noted above, wealth at least changes hands. There is another case, even more pernicious, in which the government’s actions, whether motivated by corruption or inspired by good intentions, destroy wealth, without even redistributing it: this is the case of inconsistent public policies derived from highly polarized societies.

Public policies that aim to favor a given industry, but at the same time need to agree on measures with other sectors of the economy, whose purpose is to compensate for the losses generated by those policies, can lead to a tangle of inconsistent regulations that, instead of transfer riches from one sector to another, directly destroy them. For example: exchange controls harm the export sector, since they generate black markets. The exporters will have costs that will be partly quoted according to the black market prices (which are higher) and they will have to liquidate the value of their exports at the official exchange rate, which will be lower. Regulations of this kind may not involve acts of corruption, but they do destroy wealth, which there is no way to recover.

Easterly lists numerous examples of everything that needs to be done to destroy growth. However, there is something that deserves to be especially highlighted: the progress or stagnation of nations does not depend on educational, cultural or geographic factors, but rather on the incentive framework that predominates. This incentive framework will always be abstract, that is, it can be applied at any time and place.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 6, and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 6): Breaking the mold

Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson acknowledge that the weakest point of their theory consists of recommendations to “break the mold.” How to change the historical matrix that leaves the nations stagnant in extractive political and economic institutions, or that move them back from having inclusive economic institutions with extractive political institutions to being trapped in exclusively extractive institutions with the risk of falling into a failed state. This brings us to Douglass C. North and his theory of institutional change.

Although he published works before and after Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, this book can be taken as the archetypal expression of neo-institutionalism. In the United States, institutionalism, whose main speaker was the Swedish immigrant Thorstein Veblen, was the local expression of what in Europe was known as “historicism”: a romantic current, inspired by Hegelian idealism, which denied the universal validity of institutional rules and claimed the particularism of the historical experience of each nation. American historicism was called institutionalism, because it concentrated the sciences of the spirit in the empirical study of the institutions given in the United States.

On the contrary, North’s school is called “neo-institutionalist” because it does exactly the opposite: it studies the phenomenon of institutions from a behavioral point of view and, therefore, universal. As already noted here, for North institutions are limiting the choice of the rational agent in his context of political, economic and social interaction. These limitations are abstract; that is, they are not physical, like the law of gravity, nor do they depend on a specific and specific order of authority. Examples of these abstract limitations can be found in social customs and uses, in moral rules, in legal norms insofar as they are enunciated in general and abstract terms.

Attentive to such diversity, Douglass C. North groups institutions in formal and informal. Within the formal institutions we find, unquestionably, the positive law, in which its rules of formation and transformation of the statements that articulate them can be identified very clearly. In a modern democracy, laws are sanctioned by the legislative body of the State. Meanwhile, the rules of formation and transformation of statements concerning morality are more diffuse – previously, Carlos Alchourrón and Eugenio Buligyn, in Normative Systems, had used this distinction to support the application of deontic logic to law, since deontic statements of law are much more easily identifiable than those of morality.

On the other hand, North distinguishes two types of institutional change: the disruptive and the incremental. An example of disruptive institutional change can be a revolution, but it can also be a legislative reform. The sanction of a new Civil Code, entirely new, can mean a disruptive change, while partial reforms, which incorporate judicial interpretative criteria or praetorian creations, can be examples of incremental changes.

Institutional changes do not necessarily have to come from their source of creation or validity. Scientific discoveries, advances in transport and telecommunications, information technologies, are some of the innovations that can make certain institutions obsolete or generate a new role or interpretation for it, depending on the open texture of the language.

Therefore, following the tradition of Bernard Mandeville and Adam Ferguson, neo-institutionalism admits that there are unintended consequences in the field of institutional change. Not only the incremental change of institutions, be they formal or informal, depends largely on changes in the cultural and physical environment in which institutions are deployed. Also the disruptive and deliberate change of a formal institution can generate unforeseen consequences, since it is articulated on a background of more abstract informal institutions.

Both Acemoglu & Robinson and North acknowledge that there is no universal law of history that determines institutional change -i.e., they deny historicism, as Karl R. Popper had defined it at the time-; what we have, on the other hand, is an “evolutionary drift,” a blind transformation of institutions. In this transformation, political will and environmental conditions interact. The latter not only limit the range of options for the exercise of “institutional engineering,” but also introduce an element of uncertainty in the outcome of such institutional policies, the aforementioned unintended consequences.

Much more complex is to identify which components are included in that black box that is called “environment” (environment). In principle, there could reappear the creatures that both William Easterly and Acemoglu & Robinson had banished from their explanations: the geography, culture and education of the ruling elites; more sophisticated elements such as the one referred to in the previous paragraph could also be incorporated: technological change. However, the discoveries of science would have no impact if the institutional framework pursued “creative destruction”, seeking to protect already installed activities from competition, or a lifestyle threatened by technological innovation.

We arrive here at a seemingly paradoxical situation: the institutions’ environment is the institutions. Using the Douglass North classifications system, one could try as a solution to this paradox the assertion that formal institutions operate on the background of informal institutions, which escape political will, and that disruptive institutional changes occur in a context of other institutions that are transformed in an incremental way. From this solution to reintroduce culture as a factor of ultimate explanation of institutional change, only one step remains.

At the other extreme, following the typologies used by Acemoglu & Robinson, the institutions can be political or economic and these in turn can be extractive or inclusive, jointly or alternatively. Inclusive economic institutions within a framework of extractive political institutions can result in a limitation of creative destruction and, consequently, produce a regression to extractive economic institutions. In the institutional dynamics of Acemoglu & Robinson, history can both progress and regress: from economic institutions and extractive policies it can be involuted even to situations of failed state and civil war. To reach the end of history, with inclusive institutions, seems to depend on the conjugation of a series of favorable variables, among which is the political will; while to fall back into chaos and civil war it is enough to let go. Without looking for it, the conceptual background of Why Nations Fail rehabilitates the thesis of Carl Schmitt insofar as it presupposes that in the background of human interaction there is no cooperation but conflict.

For his part, William Easterly in The Elusive Quest for Growth does not ask these questions, but simply works under a hypothesis that already has it answered: whenever there is human interaction, there will be a framework of incentives and such a framework of incentives will have certain universal characteristics. Douglass C. North’s central concern in Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, as well as that of Acemoglu & Robinson in Why Nations Fail, was to establish patterns of events and conditions that made some nations be prosperous while others could not emerge from stagnation. That is, they are works that must necessarily be about the differences between one country and another and, therefore, emphasize the different conditions. Notwithstanding that both North and Acemoglu & Robinson expressly shun culturalist explanations, but instead postulate abstract models and typologies of institutions and institutional change to be applied universally, when the moment of exemplification arrives, they must necessarily resort to the differences between countries and regions. While it is true that both books resort to the description of the problems of the southern United States when illustrating how certain institutions generate results similar to those of third world countries, the culturalist explanation is always available.

In contrast, William Easterly in his The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics focuses almost exclusively on countries with low economic performance and only tangentially refers to cases of high performance. Therefore, in his work, the empirical analytical tools used to dissect it are well separated. To do this, Easterly will not only use a utility-maximizing rational agent model, but will also enunciate abstract models of universally valid human interaction.

In the first part of the work, Easterly describes the failed panaceas of growth: direct aid, investment, education, population control, loans to make adjustments and subsequent debt forgiveness. Affirms that such policies invariably failed because they did not take into account the basic principle of the economy that indicates that people respond to incentives (people respond to incentives, a statement that is repeated as a mantra throughout the book). While acknowledging that in some cases of extreme poverty and bad luck it is necessary for governments to take direct action to help people escape from poverty traps, the author proposes as the main means for people to take a path of prosperity: work to establish the right incentives. It clarifies, however, that this should not be a new panacea but a principle to be implemented little by little, displacing the layers of vested interests impregnated with the wrong incentives and allowing the entrance of the right incentives.

These incentives, right or wrong, do not depend on the culture, nor on the education of the elites, nor on geography. On the contrary, they consist of abstract models of human interaction, which can materialize at any time or latitude. Since the main interest of The Elusive Quest for Growth is, precisely, growth, such models concern this matter, but nothing prevents future research from identifying other abstract patterns of behavior that allow us to infer incentives to address other issues, such as crime, equity, violence, etc.

Some incentive structures that Easterly describes in relation to the problem of growth are the following: conditions for increasing returns – instead of decreasing ones – that come from technological innovation, which in turn depend on phenomena identified as “leakage of technological knowledge” (leaks of technological knowledge), “combination of skills” (matches of skills) and traps (traps) of poverty -although there are also wealth traps.

Technological knowledge has the capacity to filter into a population because it is mainly abstract. It can be exemplified in an accounting system, the practice of carrying inventories, literacy, techniques and procedures for the production, distribution and sale of products, etc. If the technological knowledge consisted exclusively of physical machinery, then yes it would be to a point where yields would become decreasing. On the contrary, understanding technological knowledge as consisting of “abstract machines”, it acquires the characteristics of a public good: it is not consumed with its use nor can it be exclusive. This is how technological knowledge can be extended in a society, multiplying the productivity of its members without entering into diminishing returns.

Also, following the ideas of the recent Nobel Prize in Economics Paul Romer, Easterly highlights that technological change can generate increasing returns thanks to the work of an endogenous agent of the economy, the entrepreneur. Being the labor force a fixed factor of production with respect to machinery, it is expected that, at a certain point, capital will generate diminishing returns, thus conditioning the growth rate of an economy (the main concern of The Elusive Quest for Growth). For its part, the entrepreneur is not only that agent of the economy who discovers new business, he also discovers new uses for existing capital goods. Easterly does not mention it, but this is also the main conclusion reached by Ludwig Lachmann in his work Capital and Its Structure. This work of the entrepreneurs, to find a new utility for a set of capital goods that had come to generate diminishing returns, making them continue to generate increasing returns is what frees the rate of growth of the economy from the limits of technological change and, in turn, makes it depend on the endogenous factor of the economy: the incentives for entrepreneurs to develop their activity -which some call creative destruction.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 5 and here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 5): “Spontaneous” institutions

When Friedrich A. Hayek referred to the coordination problems among rational agents as a consequence of the dispersion of information in the economic system -and that made him worthy of the Nobel Prize in Economics- he did not refer to an information problem that could be solved with better statistical tools. This is also a problem of the economics of information and what Hayek himself called “limit relative to knowledge,” since the frontiers of science could be continuously extended, generating more and more information. The limit that Hayek qualified as absolute for knowledge came from the increasing degrees of abstraction and complexity characteristic of any “extended society.” This to the point of calling such phenomena spontaneous orders, or abstract or extended. Such orders allowed the prediction of the general configuration of the system, but they made impossible the concrete prediction regarding the relative position of each particular element of the system. If one looks for an example of such an institutional arrangement, Hayek himself would point as such to the legal systems that structured the mercantile communities, not because they lacked legislation or a state that monopolized its enactment, but because it provided the members of such a mercantile community of a dispute resolution system whose complexity acted as a guarantee of impartiality.

There is much talk of the virtues of institutions as guarantors of predictability, or legal security, or political stability and clear rules of the game. All of them are positive qualities that express the favorable consequences of a negative quality -negative not in the sense of pernicious, but of absence of a particular characteristic- that can be defined as “absence of arbitrariness.” In general, the concept of freedom is related to that of “free will,” which is very desirable for those who exercise it, but it could become a hell for those who suffer the free will of a third party. The institutions are, as it was pointed out, abstract limitations to the social human action that are structuring of the political, economic, and social interaction; in other words, they limit the arbitrariness of the decisions of own and third parties.

In a certain sense, institutions limit individual freedom, whether we define it in a positive way -as the faculty to exercise its own free will in a legitimate way- or negative -like the absence of coercion to exercise one’s free will. However, for the definition of freedom as absence of domination or absence of arbitrary coercion (similar to that coined by Quentin Skinner), institutions cease to be limiting of individual freedom to be functioning as the abstract devices that make it possible.

An institution is made up of a set of rules that not only limits the action of the rational agent and the action of a third party, but also limits, fundamentally, the actions of the political authority. The said procedural due process, for example, belong to the category of institutions that limit governmental action: no one can be punished except by a judgment based on a law prior to the fact of the process and dictated by its natural judges. The due process is not exhausted in this formulation, but this already constitutes in itself a strong restriction to the power of the government over the citizens. These limits make foreseeable the actions of the government that can interfere in the free will of the individuals and, therefore, define their spheres of autonomy.

Of course, although an institution by itself provides stability and predictability to the system and this generates dividends in terms of the coordination of expectations and individual plans, not all institutions are equally efficient if the mentioned predictability is taken as an evaluation parameter. A system of multiple castes, for example, depends on numerous but ambiguous indicators for the identification of each individual, necessary for the purpose of determining what rights and obligations that person owns. In contrast, a modern system, at the other end of the arch, which equates, with the exception of certain political rights, citizens with inhabitants, and agrees equal rights and obligations for anyone who proves distinctive features of humanity, drastically reduces the “transaction costs” of a system of social control structured around abstract institutions.

The summum of arbitrariness can be identified in despotic systems, in which the free will of the ruler or the group of rulers finds no abstract limit in the law -only concrete limits of other more powerful ones. In these systems, the rules are mere orders to the subjects that have a changing and unpredictable content. In any case, if there are positive laws, we are not facing the rule of law, but government through law. When a case of such extreme arbitrariness is exercised from one man to another, we call it slavery or, in the best of cases, servitude.

At the other pole of the arch we have, as has been pointed out, the modern system, which recognizes in each individual the inalienable right to exercise his free will within a sphere of autonomy that is equal for all. Thus, in a system of isonomy, knowing the limits of the sphere of autonomy itself, the limits of the spheres of autonomy of the third parties are known and, consequently, each individual can form expectations regarding a range of expected behavior of his fellows. They will have a high degree of certainty, as will their respective plans.

In the middle of the two poles of these two ideal types of legal-political systems we have the range of possible and specifically given societies, in which freedom as absence of arbitrary coercion (in the meanings given by both Skinner and Hayek) verify to a greater or lesser extent. What Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson do in this regard, is to open two axes of institutional analysis: the political and the economic, and in turn introduce the distinction between extractive and inclusive institutions. Extractive institutions would be halfway between despotism and isonomy: there are limiting rules of free will, but they are not equal for all, fundamentally restricting the right to access certain prerogatives: limitations on access to food, of political decisions or legal monopolies, to cite examples.

It is worth remembering that the birth of individual rights took place, primitively, as prerogatives that the powerful took from the despot. Such is the case of the Magna Carta of 1215. That is why it is said that rights do not pre-exist the individual but that they are conquered. These prerogatives that were pulling the sovereigns one by one and that is why there is no talk of “liberty” in the singular, but of “liberties”: of trade, of industry, of speech, of transit, etc. These prerogatives or liberties were initially torn from the ruler by militarily or financially powerful men and then extended to the rest of the inhabitants, to the point of recognizing their ownership every human being. Correlatively, by virtue of this process of institutionalization, in which each new prerogative was taken from the ruler, this implied a new limit to governmental power, so that the political system was evolving from tyranny to a constitutional system.

Following the course of this evolution, Acemoglu & Robinson work with the ideal substitute types of “failed state” and “modern state,” the complementary ideal types of “political institutions” and “economic institutions” and again with ideal substitute types of “extractive institutions” and “inclusive institutions.” Political democracy, with a plurality of voices and the extension of political rights, as to elect and be elected to public office, means the realization of inclusive political institutions. An economy that enjoys of sound money, a balanced public budget, openness to international trade, free access to markets, absence of legal monopolies and regulation of natural monopolies is the example of what inclusive economic institutions mean. For all this, we need a degree of political centralization crystallized in the modern state, which enforces the law, whose prescriptions must establish a public sphere whose administration the rulers must be accountable of.

Obviously, the analytical instruments of Acemoglu & Robinson are useful both in political and economic liberalism and, although they do not make a total use of almost three centuries of doctrinal and philosophical elaborations, their classification system is susceptible of being deepened by the incorporation of such concepts. For example, on the end of Why Nations Fail, the authors are at the crossroads of answering the question that serves as the title for the work. For this, they allude to the fact that certain critical situations cause a country to take one or another path: the development of inclusive political and economic institutions or the fate of stagnation, but that there is no such thing as a general law of history that determines that one or the other path will be taken forcibly at some specific historical moment.

This is how the authors invoke, timidly and tangentially, the current of cultural evolutionism, according to which the social customs and habits are evolving following the changes in environmental conditions, but without having a predetermined course, following an evolutionary drift. In the same way, they could have explained the institutionalization that the emerging state implies a modern state through the names and procedural principles that are previously in the uses and customs that make up private law. This is how Max Weber explained it and such studies can be used to delve into the historical analyzes formulated by Acemoglu & Robinson when answering why countries fail.

Notwithstanding this, these economists do establish certain patterns of institutional evolution that are apt to be applied when designing public policies or, plain and simple, a government program. In this sense, they allude to cases such as those of Argentina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had a resounding success at the moment of formal institutionalization through the enactment of a written constitution and the establishment of a central government of a federal nature. As explained by Acemoglu & Robinson, Argentina incorporated inclusive economic institutions, while it was slower to leave behind extractive political institutions. Initially, Argentina was strongly benefited by the “catch up” regarding the degree of progress of its economic partners, mainly England.

However, following these evolutionary patterns, sooner or later a crucial point is reached in which, in order for the economy to continue to progress, higher levels of competition must be developed that make it necessary to tolerate the impact of the so-called “creative destruction.” When the political system is extractive, it is much easier to resist innovation in the economic sphere when it threatens their economic rents. Arriving at that stage, there are the conditions given for the economic and political progress of a country to be reverted to extractive economic institutions.

That is to say, with inclusive institutions, both politically and economically, it becomes more difficult to find shortcuts to the sectors threatened by the creative destruction of all innovation that progress brings, in order to neutralize it. Once the regulatory, interventionist and protectionist apparatus that characterizes the extractive economic institutions is assembled, the contest moves to the political level: whoever has the springs of political power will distribute the benefits of the economic system. If we add to this a polarized society, it is not difficult to explain why the alternation of popular governments emerged from popular democracies and military civic coups. Specifically, in the case of Argentina, Acemoglu & Robinson add the factor of justice: for a country to be involved in such a spiral of institutional involution, it was necessary for justice to lose its independence from political power.

[Editor’s note: Here is Part 4; here is the entire, Longform Essay.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 2); Institutions: definition and subtypes

Implicitly, Douglass C. North, William Easterly, and Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson share the same notion of “institution.” In this respect, what must be taken into account is not a real definition of the former but its operative concept, that is, what characteristic features relate it to the rest of the concepts of each theoretical body. In this sense, we can affirm that for these authors an institution is a limiting factor for human interaction. More precisely, in terms of D.C. North, institutions can be defined as abstract constraints imposed on human social decisions that structure political, economic, and social interaction. The rational agent finds limited its action and its spectrum of choices by institutions, which can be derived as much from the law as from custom, his habits, or his moral constraints.

However, the particular limitations that a particular person experiences are not relevant, but those that are incorporated into the behavior of a large number of human beings that interact with each other, which allows them to recognize a structural pattern of human social action. In this way, although an institution limits human action, because it is widespread throughout the social fabric, building it, it allows each individual inserted in such a set of interactions to represent expectations about the behavior of their fellow human beings that have a high probability of being true (something similar to what Friedrich A. Hayek had previously enunciated in his concept of “spontaneous order”). These expectations allow each individual to make plans with a high degree of probability of accomplishment, or at least to identify those actions that could be ruinous. In this sense, an institution is not only a limitation of human action, but, correlatively, a motivator for it, i. e. an incentive. The structure of human interactions that institutions project in the political, economic, and social fields helps the rational agent to make more efficient decisions, since they have a lower margin of risk. Of course, not all the incentives generate the same economic performance.

It is true that any pattern of human interactions that constrains the scope of choices of the agent (i.e., institutions), however inefficient they might be, represent an advantage over the total absence of it, since it works as a hedge against the arbitrary power and violence from third parties. Thus, the main distinction to be drawn is between anomie and institutionalization.

This latter opinion is expressly stated in Why Nations Fail: the extractive institutions -the ones that establish rules that favor a group at the expense of the whole-, both politically and economically, although they are harmful, are less so than civil war, polarization, factions, or anarchy. Acemoglu & Robinson argue that a country that does not have “inclusive” institutions, but at least have extractive institutions, might experience a rapid development obtained from the importation of discoveries from better organized countries – the phenomenon of “catch up.” However, after reaching a certain maturity, if the country in question does not advance towards political and economic opening, stagnation and subsequent implosion will be difficult to avoid.

Here is where the book of Acemoglu & Robinson finds its point of greatest affinity with the work of William Easterly: to continue on a path of growth and development, countries and their ruling classes must be willing to admit that progress only comes through innovation and that all innovation is accompanied by a process of “creative destruction.”

[Editor’s note: You can find Part 1 here. You can find the entire Longform Essay here.]

Three Lessons on Institutions and Incentives (Part 1): Introduction

There are books that are aimed at a spectrum of readers that are counted within the “well-informed public.” They are not books confined to academic circles, they are not for mass consumption, but they do concern problems that involve entire countries and are written in a register that involves certain intellectual training. In this genre, there are three works that have much to say about the relationship between institutions and incentives. The first of them dates from 1990 and was published by a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Douglass C. North: Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, which elaborates the distinction between formal and informal institutions and incremental and disruptive institutional change, ending with a historical analysis that seeks to explain the differences in economic performance between the United States and Latin America. It is an academic book that can be approached by the said well-informed public.

Eleven years later, in 2001, William Easterly published The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. It is proposed as a political essay in which an economist interprets his own professional experience as a member of international teams for the development of Third World countries. To do this, drawing on the theoretical notions of other leading economists, such as Paul Romer (who later, in 2018, received the Nobel Prize in Economics), he makes an assessment on the development plans for the Third World that were implemented since the end of World War II. The central thesis of Easterly stresses that, in order to have an empirical relevance, every theory of development -or of the absence of it- must carry the following behavioral postulate: “people respond to incentives.” If this reality is not taken into account, there is no public policy that can be successful. The main lessons that can be drawn come from the theoretical instruments deployed to explain the political dynamics of most of these countries, particularly in regard to the phenomenon of polarized societies.

The third book to consider is also the more recent publication. Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, was published in 2012 and reached the global debate on the realm of the well-informed public. The proportions achieved by the population of academics and professionals, in addition to the extension of the internet, allowed the aforementioned book to generate varied opinions along both traditional and digital media throughout the world. Acemoglu & Robinson dedicate their pages to those countries that were successful, as well as those that were not, but also here, in the case of this book, the most juicy lessons truly comes from the conceptual structure that articulates the whole book. Among such notions, we find those of inclusive and extractive institutions, which in turn are divided into political and economic institutions. The worst of the institutions are preferable to the total lack of institutions. Thus, a country organized around a closed political and economic system will be preferable to a failed state. However, once a certain degree of centralization and institutionality has been achieved, it is preferable to move towards a pluralist democracy and a competitive economy. The challenge is how to accomplish such transitions.

Since there are still four years left until the year 2023 – following the periodicity of the selected works – we are still in time to make a brief synthesis of the ideas that can be applied to the analysis of the impact of the institutions on economic and political incentives.

[Editor’s note: this is the first part of a rich series on institutions and incentives. You can find the full, Longform Essay here.]