“Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty”
By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
To find out how screwed up a country can be, sometimes you just need to get breakfast. A couple years ago in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), the only eggs I found for sale were marked as imported from Cameroon, some six hundred miles away, and they cost more than the cage-free organic variety on offer at my local yuppie mart here in America. Raising chickens is easy and cheap: At these prices, someone should have been able to make good money producing eggs locally. But C.A.R., like many countries, is disordered at a deep level, and the old laws of microeconomics apply there only in the same sense that the law of gravity applies on the moon.
“Why Nations Fail,” the large and ambitious new book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, aims to explain this disorder and come up with a general theory of how places with reasonably similar cultural and natural-resource endowments end up either poor or prosperous. They point to Nogales, the city that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson. Ethnically, the two sides of the city are identical twins. But the American side swims comfortably in cash, and the Mexican side is poor and violent. This same mismatch is visible across countless other political borders: North Korean kids are malnourished because they have no food; South Korean kids are malnourished because they skip meals to play Starcraft. Haiti exports refugees; the Dominican Republic exports shortstops. (For more on this check out “Natural Experiments of History,” the fascinating volume Robinson co-edited with Jared Diamond last year.)