Sunday, October 7, 2012

Acemoglu and Robinson's Western Euro-Centricism

I've been reading Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson's, Why Nation's Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Crown Business 2012). I'm up to Chapter 5 and so far underwhelmed by the book's lack of novelty. Perhaps the last ten chapters will change my mind, but so far I don't see that this book adds much to earlier works by Douglass North, Joel Mokyr, and other economic historians, who have, like Acemoglu and Robinson, focused on institutional (as opposed to geographical or environmental) causes of economic success or failure.

That question aside, I need to take issue with something I just read toward the end of Chapter 4, which displays an all too common and casual attitude of Western Euro-centrism. Beginning on page 107, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that Eastern Europe, and specifically Poland, were institutionally backward, as compared with Western European countries at the end of the sixteenth century. Their claim is patently false at least with respect to Poland. Not only did the Poles elect their Kings, as Acemoglu and Robinson acknowledge, but Poland had the largest electorate in all of Europe - the szlachta were an unusually large and economically diverse aristocracy - with a federal form of government comprised of one national parliament and many regional parliaments. In those parliaments, all members of the szlachta had equal voting rights. In fact, virtually all Poles in the sixteenth century, including the sizable Jewish community, had far more religious liberty and civil rights than virtually anyone in supposedly more advanced England or France. (See, e.g., my 1999 review essay from the Michigan Law Review on Poland's constitutional history, here.)

Compounding the problem, Acemoglu and Robinson present a map on page 109 purporting to show serfdom as an important institutional variable distinguishing Eastern Europe, including Poland, from Western Europe, as of 1800. The map they provide is an anachronism, based on current European borders.* As a matter of fact, in 1800 Poland was not an independent country; it did not even exist on the map of Europe, having been partitioned in the 1790s by Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Prussia.

The American Revolutionary War veteran Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1794 led a revolt against the partitioning powers, which garnered the support of the peasantry after he proclaimed the abolition of serfdom (in the Proclamation of Polaniec). After winning some initial victories against Russian forces. Kosciuszko's uprising was ultimately crushed and the General himself was taken prisoner. The victorious Russians, of course, ignored Kosciuszko's manifesto abolishing serfdom and reintroduced that institution in their new Polish territories.

These are not incidental historical complications. To determine why some countries in Europe managed to create successful modern failed while others succeeded, it is necessary to understand what institutions were actually in place and how they evolved (or were forcibly changed) over time. It's just not good enough to explain that Poland had an aristocracy in 1588 and that Russia still enforced serfdom in its Polish territories in 1800, while France and England managed, through violent revolutions, to overthrow old and archaic institutions.

A more interesting and compelling institutional history of Poland would seek to understand why that particular country failed to sustain economic growth not because it lacked the kind of institutions we associate with modern market democracies but despite its proto-democratic and strongly libertarian (in some cases anarchic) institutions, including, for example the liberum veto (a rule of unanimity for parliamentary decisions).

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*The authors present a similarly anachronistic map of Europe on page 291, but a historically accurate map on page 230 to illustrate the extent of rail lines in different European countries in the late nineteenth century. It's hard to imagine why they chose not to use historically accurate maps throughout the book.

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