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.