Prosperity, autocracy and democracy

By Chrystia Freeland
March 2, 2012

To understand the significance of the presidential election this weekend in Russia, read a book by two U.S.-based academics that is being published this month. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, respectively, is a wildly ambitious work that hopscotches through history and around the world to answer the very big question of why some countries get rich and others don’t.

Their one-word answer, as Acemoglu summed it up for me, is ‘‘politics.’’ Acemoglu and Robinson divide the world into countries governed by ‘‘inclusive’’ institutions and those ruled by ‘‘extractive’’ ones. Inclusive societies, with England and its Glorious Revolution of 1688 in the vanguard, deliver sustainable growth and technological innovation. Extractive ones can have spurts of prosperity, but because they are ruled by a narrow elite guided by its own self-interest, their economic vigor eventually fades.

‘‘It is really about societies that have a more equitable distribution of political power versus those that don’t,’’ Acemoglu told me. ‘‘It is about societies where the elite, the rich, can do what they want and those where they cannot.’’

For many of us, that is a welcome conclusion. It may also seem to be an obvious one. But Acemoglu pointed out that academics, policymakers and business leaders have often advanced quite different views. One perspective is that all that matters is economic growth and the right technocratic mix of policies necessary to deliver it. This approach, implicit in the prescriptions of so many International Monetary Fund missions, is that if countries can get richer, everything else will fall into place.

A version of this view, which has gained particular currency since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is that the key is private property. Establish property rights, the reformers in Warsaw, Moscow and Beijing believed, and economic and social success will inevitably follow.

But Acemoglu and Robinson argue that if an extractive regime is in charge, neither wealth nor private property can save a country from eventual decline. The Russia of today, they believe, is a textbook extractive regime, and that is what makes the vote this weekend, and the unexpected protests that preceded it, so significant.

‘‘Russia is ruled by a narrow clique,’’ Acemoglu said. ‘‘The only thing that is keeping it going is a big boom in natural resources and a clever handling of the media.’’

The point, Acemoglu argues, is that wealth in and of itself doesn’t lead to sustained growth: ‘‘Saudi Arabia can get a lot of growth, but that is not the right growth. Take away the oil and Saudi Arabia would be like a poor African country.’’

A crucial argument Acemoglu and Robinson make — and one foreign aid donors and policy advisers too often miss — is that the leaders of extractive regimes don’t implement policies that stifle sustainable growth out of ignorance. They aren’t stupid; they are merely and rationally pursuing their own self-interest. The real ignorance is that of outsiders who fail to appreciate that in an extractive regime, the interests of the rulers and the ruled do not coincide.

‘‘When you think of somebody like Chávez, you will see that his objective is not to enrich Venezuela,’’ Acemoglu said, referring to President Hugo Chávez. ‘‘He is not letting markets work because his goal is something else.’’

Acemoglu and Robinson’s analytical framework helps to make sense of one of the seeming paradoxes of the past 12 months — the prosperous middle-class people who have taken to the streets in the Arab world, in India and in Russia to protest crony capitalism. If you believe that economic growth today is a sufficient condition for long-term prosperity, these affluent agitators are puzzling. That leads observers to search for softer grievances, like the quest for dignity.

But Acemoglu and Robinson believe that dignity and long-term prosperity are intimately connected. The protesters, who put the demand for political rights ahead of everything else, are right; the academic consensus that argues they should simply focus on the correct economic policies is wrong.

In the early Putin era, the Acemoglu and Robinson approach was very much a minority view. As recently as 2008, an essay in Foreign Affairs by another pair of influential Western scholars laid out the ‘‘conventional explanation for Vladimir Putin’s popularity’’ thus: ‘‘Since 2000, under Putin, order has returned, the economy has flourished, and the average Russian is living better than ever before. As political freedom has decreased, economic growth has increased. Putin may have rolled back democratic gains, the story goes, but these were necessary sacrifices on the altar of stability and growth.’’

But in their Foreign Affairs essay those scholars strongly disagreed: ‘‘This conventional narrative is wrong, based almost entirely on a spurious correlation between autocracy and growth. The emergence of Russian democracy in the 1990s did indeed coincide with state breakdown and economic decline, but it did not cause either. The reemergence of Russian autocracy under Putin, conversely, has coincided with economic growth but not caused it (high oil prices and recovery from the transition away from communism deserve most of the credit).’’

The essay’s authors concluded with a prediction about Russia’s future that fits neatly within the framework of extractive versus inclusive institutions and labels Putin’s Russia the former: ‘‘The Kremlin talks about creating the next China, but Russia’s path is more likely to be something like that of Angola — an oil-dependent state that is growing now because of high oil prices but has floundered in the past when oil prices were low and whose leaders seem more intent on maintaining themselves in office to control oil revenues and other rents than on providing public goods and services to a beleaguered population.’’

Acemoglu and Robinson are pretty tough on Western experts, officials and business people who, they believe, are too easily seduced by the leaders of extractive regimes, particularly ones enjoying temporary bursts of prosperity.

But the 2008 Foreign Affairs essay highlights a very important exception. One of the authors of that devastating critique of Putinism was Michael A. McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow. That appointment, lauded by many inside and outside Russia for utilizing the skills of an acknowledged Russia expert, may be one reason to be hopeful about Russia today.

27 comments

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I confess that I have not read the book and I am eager to lay my hands on a copy. My comments are therefore premised on the information revealed in the article.

India is the largest democracy in the world. It follows that India must have an inclusive system. So why is it relevant to use demonstrations in India as justification for Acemoglu’s and Robinson’s analysis.

If the point is that only extractive regimes (as opposed to inclusive systems) practice crony capitalism, how does one account for the Tea Party Movement (prosperous middle class) and the Occupy protests (generally comfortable middle class)?

To conclude that extractive regimes only prosper due to the rise in commodity prices ignores the fact that some countries with (possible) extractive regimes achieved more than simple prosperity – Monaco, Hong Kong (when it was a colony)and Singapore achieved much with no natural resources.

Are the Western experts, officials and business people easily seduced by leaders of extractive regimes or is it simply a case of recognition of a fellow player.

Crony capitalism is not the exclusive preserve of extractive regimes. It is a virus and, like the flu, it has many mutations. And it afflicts the entire world.

Posted by Calibration | Report as abusive

It may seem a trivial question, but on what timescale do the authors consider “success” or “failure”?

Surely, according to the features presented here, the most “extractive” (ugh) regime in history was the British East India Company, which bought up or stole much of the world, then gave it to the crown when ruling it became too bothersome, calling it “the British Empire”.

Yet the Company was well into its stride even by the time of Glorious Revolution (not so glorious for Catholics who found themselves excluded from the ruling elite, of course). The Company was certainly dominant within a couple of generations later – do the authors mean to imply that Great Britain was only “inclusive” for a few decades? If so, then that’s not much of a success.

So, unless a country can be both “inclusive” and “extractive” at the same time, the authors taxonomy falls at the first hurdle. And if a country can be both at the same time, then their taxonomy is useless.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

“Russia is ruled by a narrow clique” and this differs from the US how? Look at the changes in this country over the last 40 years and let’s see if this doesn’t apply to the US today just as much.

Posted by MidwestVoice | Report as abusive

I love the term “extractive” – it has always been the term I’ve used when describing the current state of affairs in many countries, Italy especially. My metaphorical figure was building the walls of the communal home. If everybody contributes his fair share of stones (pebbles, bricks) then the structure will grow. However in Italy it has been pretty evident that the friends-of-friends where more interested either in letting the rest of the community contribute its share, whilst they were busy “extracting” from the community’s structure (we all know what how it all ended in Greece….).
Implosion of the social fabric isn’t far away if these dynamics are allowed to go unchecked. Apparently Mr. Monti’s new gov’t is trying very hard to come up with enough mortar to convince Italians to contribute anew, and to try to rebuild those parts of the edifice that have crumbled.
The members of the élites (barons, kleptocrats, etc) of course have vested interests – they want to own the shop that builds the stones, bricks or pebbles that the rest of the society must buy, or even better profit at zero cost.
Unfortunately many members of the middle class secretly aspire to a similar position; that is the reason why certain reforms cannot succeed – they are secretly sabotaged by those victims of the system who would like to play on the opposite team.
The “generally comfortable middle class” described in the previous comment is only defending its right to compete, succeed, participate in a socio-economical game that is not rigged. That is why this same middle class has decided to join the “occupy” movements in the developed world.

Posted by CheesePaul | Report as abusive

If we are going to over simplify, I think it is a combination of brutal violence and shared ideology that keep nations going. Take away either and they usually fall apart.

Posted by M.C.McBride | Report as abusive

The ‘private property right’ is actually just one side of the bigger item called Individual Liberty in classical liberalism (ie libertarian). The other side being ‘private consequential responsibility’.

Socialism fails not just because it immorally takes the result (positive thing) from the work of one man and gives to others. (This is more like the case of traditional Marxism, no private property right)

Socialism also fails because it also immorally takes the consequences (negative thing) of a man (either because he is unfortunate and ignorant or because he is simply irresponsible) and spreads it to others. (This is more like the case of what the neo-liberals (aka neo-socialism) are morphing into, little personal responsibility)

Remember that every single thing one does have consequences. Life is a cycle, life is about balance. In life, there will be positive and negative things. We need positive things to make it worth living, but we also have to mature and face the consequences ourselves. Neo-liberalism fails to see both sides of the issue.

I see the problem of exclusive political system is not the exclusion by itself, but more about the corruption that almost always comes with political exclusion.

Prosperity (or poverty) of a nation comes from 3 sources only in my view:
1) Capability of the population. This is not just the intellectual and technological aspect (work smarter), it is also about the mental and discipline ones (work harder).
2) The social, cultural, legal systems and values that bind the population together.
3) Luck (ie the country simply sits on too much natural resources per capita)

Another belief that I hold strong is that democracy is overrated. It’s only good in preventing bad thing (eg a selfish, ignorant dictator/government). As a libertarian I personally don’t even care if there is democracy and/or political inclusion or not as long as:

1) There is no oppressive, corrupted, intrusive, incompetent government or dictator
2) Too much of what I earned is taken away and I have to take too much responsibility for actions of the reckless others. (Most of us don’t mind take care of the unfortunate others once a while, but absolutely not the reckless)
3) There is certain involvement of government so I don’t have to worry too much about my safety and some other basic rights.

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

I think the reason why Russians consume so much Vodka is they have a unique insight into history. I also think that Ukrainians consume so much Vodka because they have Russians for neighbors (also, WE know how to have a good time). The fix for Russia will be unique in human history. There is nothing in their past that gives them a guide to the way out. From my read, institutional corruption started at least with Pyotr. Petersburg was as much a real estate scam as anything. Rule of law has always been secondary to family and association. That works in a closed, paranoid, isolated, xenophobic, chronically hungover society, not one with fiber optics and routers connected to Poland.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

“but because they are ruled by a narrow elite guided by its own self-interest, their economic vigor eventually fades” – - – We hold these truths to be self-evident…
But I have noticed in my half-century of experience that the quality of leaders, spokesmen, authorities, and scholars has markedly declined; so as to make much of what they say very questionable. I believe that those that make these kind of declarations spend far less time and far less objectivity than is necessary to achieve rationality. The “obvious” stares you in the face, but your desire to affect other peoples opinions makes you take short cuts. Personal gain, in getting your papers in the latest Journal or having your say at the dinner table, is driving you colour things in your favour. “Winning” trumps integrity, and “winning is everything” even at the expense of the facts.
Do you remember the story of the “Nail Soup”? My grandmother would tell us: there was a stranger who came upon a village and told the people that he was hungry. Instead of giving him food, they told him that they were poor and had no food, that they were hungry too. So the man told them that they could make a soup together if they would boil the water and he would help. They boiled the water and the traveler brought out a nail from his pocket, tied it to a string, and dipped it in the cauldron. It didn’t make a very good soup and someone suggested that it needed some salt. Away they went and brought back some salt. The soup tasted better, but not very much. To shorten the story, another suggested cabbage, and yet another suggested potatoes. And on this went until they had made soup enough for the entire village, including the stranger.
Together, we work.

Posted by nieldevi | Report as abusive

Well, well, well. Another “religious” based opinion where only some facts made it to the model. Others…why bother with those that complicate things?

First – climate and geography.
Sorry to explain self-evident things,but due to geographical position during country’s formation Russia had very little in the way of international trade routes, which ’till XIX c. were mostly seas. And being large and sparsely populated, most of the land had no way to produce monetary revenue. Of course with harsh climate of our heartland , natural revenue was abysmally small. Despite all the talks ’bout “Russia richnesses”, real changes came only in the mid-XIXth century. This demanded something similar to “fencing” in England century before, what backfired ultimately in 1917 but was finished only by Collectivization

Second – colonies.
Almost major currently “developed” european countries ‘cept Germany had small dirty bonus in their past – they had colonies. From famous British Empire to small Belgium, they all draw on resources of Asia and Africa. But Russia had no such colonies, it had provinces at best, which also were poorer and constantly under military threat.All the development was paid off by population, poor one.

3. WWII and Cold War.
Material and population losses of USA, UK or even France were incomparable to those of USSR. Almost 1/3 of total national wealth was lost,trophies from eastern Prussia couldn’t compensate that … and USA|UK did took trophies too. So at beginning of Cold War economical disparity was huge.

4. post-1991 and globalization.
Breaking of USSR and opening of former Economical Mutual Aid Union markets to west sucked out all free resources, partialy due to unavoilability of credits to our industries, partially due to outright bribery and theft, partially that large part of EMAU products were inferior to western ones. Only fossil fuels and metals were something that could be sold on outer markets and need no unavailable then investments, but even those revenues were evading taxation as much as possible.

That was the state of Russia when Putin came into power,with total budget of RF at $24 bln, USD as THE money in Russia and average salary less than $100.

Most harsh part of situation was and still is that there is very few economical nieches for our industries to make use of as long as global free markets policy is implemented. In lower end products China reigns supreme, in mid- and high- end and financial markets western companies had so much economical advantage (not the last is cheaper credits) that it’s almost impossible to compete.
Somehow though with combination of goverment support and political stability, our economics still grows and evolves, something that current liberal opposition when they were in power thought was impossible.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

This is an excellent presentation of the dichotomy between a genuine and cosmetic transition in political infrastructure. It’s no coincidence that Russians have given us the concept and expression ‘Potemkin Village’ and that the favourite Russian souvenir is a nesting doll. Russia has not yet fully ingested the democratic spirit of America and Western Europe. It is still a foreign and uncomfortable paradigm for them. We can only hope that this dynamic will change soon.

Posted by VladBJr | Report as abusive

Both Russia and USA are both effectively dominated, ruled by, and manipulated by oligarchies. Why is Russia so busy trying to ape the USA in its race to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few to the detriment of a more democratic distribution of economic opportunities? It’s because we’re the most successful oligarchy since the British Empire. As large as Russia is, with its extensive resources, large population and tremendous advancements in science, technology and education over the last 100 years, who else would they be busy trying to imitate if they’re trying to achieve global parity in economic terms and military reach? The weakness is Russia’s position with respect to the USA, is its lack of a democratic tradition in the mold of the western democracies which could hinder the growth of its fledgling middle class into the future, not its current drive to amass wealth in the hands of the oligarchs. If Russia is to develop a healthy middle class, they must enable a better and more distributed range of economic and political opportunities in the future, and not to continue to concentrate it in the hands of a few industrial oligopolies and their owners. The more concentrated the wealth of the nation is, the less democratic it becomes. The USA is undergoing a reactionary phase in its evolution from an agrarian society, to an industrial power, to a world power, and it’s beginning to manifest itself in a more repressive form of political and economic culture which rewards short term goals to the detriment of long term political stability and economic prosperity. We’re ahead of Russia in many respects, but we’re doomed to follow the path of the British Empire and other world empires which sought to extend dominance beyond their border through the use of military means, while depleting their respective national treasuries, and ultimately failing unless we change and start thinking long term again. Russia is simply trying to play catch up, and comparing them to us is like comparing apples to oranges.

Posted by USDemocrat | Report as abusive

One could argue that even “inclusive” nations can be extractive.

Just consider the financial crisis. Are not derivatives of various type claims on future earnings and cash flows of its citizens – via housing and other consumer loans for education, autos, student loans being packaged and sold at usurious interest rates far above market rates?

These are often supported by government guarantees, secured via controlling politicians who seek to remain in power via political donations in a quid pro quo?

Posted by XRayD | Report as abusive

Dear lady,

your assessment is pretty accurate. But you have modestly forgotten to include the U.S.A. into the analysis. The country has shifted from an inclusive to a highly extractive one. The political class doesn’t care about anything but reelection and it is completely corrupt. Anything the government does favors mutinationals and Wall St. The middle class has vanished. The country’s new name is Northern Mexico. Don’t forget to look in the mirror before talking about others.

Posted by Peterson | Report as abusive

What is the difference between the clique behind Romney and the the clique behind Putin?

Posted by Qeds | Report as abusive

The narrow clique in the US is using monetary policy and a consumer economy to “extract” from a far more sustainable resource: the American people.

My disgust with exceptionalism for western “democracies” has reached a boiling point.

Posted by billt568 | Report as abusive

We have to face the truth; “each nation deserves the leader it has.” Because “politics” is people manipulation, it will always be a situation of the 99/1%. None of the governing system practiced in this world will work because we deal with temporal entities. However, when we adhere to the Laws governing the entire universe would serve our sustainability. The time given to us will finish when the energy clock comes to its end. For your information Google “The World Monetary Order”.

Posted by carlvzdj | Report as abusive

good

Posted by ramkrishna | Report as abusive

Why did I get the feeling reading your piece that there was an elephant in the room which you never got around to acknowledging? Isn’t it fair to say that the US has gone from being a primarily inclusive state to being extractive, run primarily by crony capitalism? We were already pretty much there, but with the Citizens United ruling I think it’s fair to conclude that we are officially governed by an extractive institution.

It depends on how much the definition of an extractive institution is reliant on a nation’s dependence on a limited number of commodities, which the US is not. But surely the US practices a distinct form of crony capitalism. Even though Obama has done a lot for our institutions of power, such as Wall Street, the banking industry, the insurance industry, etc., I would still argue that Obama is the closest thing to a fluke that we’ll see again unless our election system is changed. That is, Obama’s kowtowing to our institutions of power is not overt, certainly not as overt as recent preceding Presidents, and he’s paid a lot of political capital for that “reserve”. After Obama leaves office, be it next year or in 5 more years, expect the crony capitalism to be much more overt from whomever is in the Oval Office. Definitely with Mitt Romney. And why shouldn’t we expect it be? We’re not in much of a position to do anything about it except to take to the streets, and Americans tend to be slow to do that, though that may be changing.

Also, consistent with an extractive governing institution, our media resources are dependent on bringing in large sums of cash and that’s much easier if they behave and tow the extractive, crony capitalism line. For example, why contribute to educating the American populace on the threatening, undemocratic effects that our current political campaign financing system has on our Republic when the current system rains money on our news media institutions like manna from heaven in the form of political advertising? Why gnaw off the hand that feeds you just because it’s the right thing to do?

I believe that the US is now very much run by an extractive form of government and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences laid out for us by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book “Why Nations Fail”. It will only get worse if we don’t change our political system to be more inclusive.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

Why did I get the feeling reading your piece that there was an elephant in the room which you never got around to acknowledging? Isn’t it fair to say that the US has gone from being a primarily inclusive state to being extractive, run primarily by crony capitalism? We were already pretty much there, but with the Citizens United ruling I think it’s fair to conclude that we are officially governed by an extractive institution.

It depends on how much the definition of an extractive institution is reliant on a nation’s dependence on a limited number of commodities, which the US is not. But surely the US practices a distinct form of crony capitalism. Even though Obama has done a lot for our institutions of power, such as Wall Street, the banking industry, the insurance industry, etc., I would still argue that Obama is the closest thing to a fluke that we’ll see again unless our election system is changed. That is, Obama’s kowtowing to our institutions of power is not overt, certainly not as overt as recent preceding Presidents, and he’s paid a lot of political capital for that “reserve”. After Obama leaves office, be it next year or in 5 more years, expect the crony capitalism to be much more overt from whomever is in the Oval Office. Definitely with Mitt Romney. And why shouldn’t we expect it be? We’re not in much of a position to do anything about it except to take to the streets, and Americans tend to be slow to do that, though that may be changing.

Also, consistent with an extractive governing institution, our media resources are dependent on bringing in large sums of cash and that’s much easier if they behave and tow the extractive, crony capitalism line. For example, why contribute to educating the American populace on the threatening, undemocratic effects that our current political campaign financing system has on our Republic when the current system rains money on our news media institutions like manna from heaven in the form of political advertising? Why gnaw off the hand that feeds you just because it’s the right thing to do?

I believe that the US is now very much run by an extractive form of government and we are already beginning to suffer the consequences laid out for us by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson in their book “Why Nations Fail”. It will only get worse if we don’t change our political system to be more inclusive.

Posted by flashrooster | Report as abusive

Unfortunately for the unfortunate,”extractive” seems to work quite well for the individual. Nepotism has solid evolutionary roots. Inclusive governments seem to morph rather quickly into officially deniable plutocracy. It is a currently inevitable trait of the clever monkeys.

Posted by NateMullikin | Report as abusive

Sounds like Friedrich Hayek with updated terminology to me. But that’s okay. The simplistic comparison of Autocracy vs. Democracy is the distinction that matters. Any nation ruled by an autocrat is living on borrowed time and going nowhere. Line up Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Chavez, Mr. Putin.

Posted by Watcher23 | Report as abusive

Oh, she’s hiding the elephant in the room alright, because it runs exactly counter to her thesis and that of Acemoglu and Robinson. They all decree that “inclusive” is better than “extractive” and then assign the former to liberal capitalist economies and the latter to the rest regardless of current and historical facts. In other words, there is a bias present that is imposed regardless of the evidence, and that imposition requires ignoring the several elephants in the room.

Posted by tyr81 | Report as abusive

Great article inspiring great comments. @flashrooster points are great, as are @trevorh’s with the latter coming to very different conclusions. However, it would be interesting to read the book first. This subject is very hot as it does seem to look at why the politics and economic ideology in each country produces different results. And, of course, @Ian_Kemmish’s question of timeline is important, too. Russia sits on a lot of reserves. How many generations of extraction will it take for their political system to fail? Most importantly, on the matter of sustainability, the whole concept of extraction is limited, inherently making such a system doomed.

Looks like this book is a must read.

Posted by LEEDAP | Report as abusive

I hope you’re right. The Russians have the only military with possibly the same capability as the US military.

Posted by bboaze | Report as abusive

Nialls Ferguson wrote two excellent books that deal with why Western nations are wealthy and why they ruled the planet for the last 500 years. “The Ascent Of Money” and “Civilization – the West and the Rest” highly recommended reading. Very thoughtful insight and loads of historic facts on the question of why some countries are rich and others are not. It is a lot more complex than a simple one sentence answer.

Posted by Anthonykovic | Report as abusive

Your review ties in well with Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, my forthcoming book. See http://www.importingdemocracy.org

I haven’t yet read Why Nations Fail, but I assume the authors link inclusivity to democracy. Although the pace of democratic change has ebbed and flowed in recent years, the idea that democracy can be exported, especially militarily, has been discredited. Recent charges against foreign democracy advocates in Egypt suggest that even the peaceful export of democracy is questionable, unless it is done with great caution.

After interviewing 90 activists from democratization NGOs in the three countries, I concluded that what they import is democratic ideas, from the developing as well as the developed world. They also work to restore traditional democratic practices such as dialogue and deliberation at the village level.

Equally important, they work on everything from teaching local police about human rights in Tajikistan, to pressuring local governments to become more accountable in South Africa to achieving open hearings for Supreme Court candidates in Argentina. The three countries are radically different, but the organizers of democratization NGOs all understand that democracy is about more than just elections.

Posted by juliefisher | Report as abusive

USA has two different sets of rules that interrupt each other while they’re talking. Sometimes they interrupt themselves. You get a hybrid system that is disorderly as a consequence. That’s why we’re occupying and demanding economic justice and condemning disorder.

Posted by laguardia23 | Report as abusive