Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoğlu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
After reading Why Nations Fail, I could not help but reflect on the two recent and failed political action movements here in the United States, the right leaning Tea Party and the anarcho-lefty Occupy. I say failed because even though both movements sought to reform government in fundamental ways, neither seemed able to secure the kind of lasting effects that might encourage the government to move towards policies of economic growth and expanded rights.
Why Nations Fail posits that governments that engender inclusive economic and political institutions succeed and grow their economy by securing rule of law, basic property rights and strong social institutions such as education. Extractive economic and political institutions have the opposite effect as economies stagnate and power accumulates among a small group of elites. Today we call these elites the 1%.
The Tea Party failed because despite its bold statements of inclusivity and fiscal prudence it was really a rehash of failed Republican policies and had as many of its members those who were outside local Republican power structures. Once the Tea Party gained power, it simply took over the local Republican parties, switching out established politicians with new ones who differed only in their approach towards social issues such as marriage equality and reproductive freedom.
In a micro version of the "iron law of oligarchy" the elites in local Republican Parties were ousted by Tea Partiers who then pursued the same failed policies as their predecessors, without the political skill of negotiation and tact. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, but stupider.
Meanwhile, the Occupy movement failed because it wanted some sort of I'll defined "change" but never reached a consensus as to what that change should be. The fear of becoming the new boss and being seduced by corrupting power led Occupy to come up with systems that undermined their very ability to secure any power or influence. It became easy for the existing economic and political institutions to simply ignore Occupy, and focus instead at making sure those in the Tea Party who attained power were properly installed into the ore-existing oligarchy.
What the book makes clear is that what is needed is a group of people to agitate for power, make institutional changes that more our society away from extractive and towards inclusive institutions, all the while resisting the temptation to become the new establishment.
This sounds like a tall order, but Why Nations Fail is full of examples of governments and individuals who, once power was attained, did everything possible to spread the power and the benefits of a growing economy to as many of its citizens as possible.
I was especially excited by the nods towards the value of media in making transitions from extractive to inclusive institutions possible. An open and free press can be a powerful tool towards the establishment of inclusive institutions and I count myself as a small part of this effort as a writer for a local progressive blog here in Rhode Island.
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