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on February 28, 2006
Economists are turning their focus of inquiry to subjects that were once the exclusive preserve of their colleagues in other social sciences--history, sociology, and political science. The title of this book, "Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy," appears to have been deliberately, even provocatively, chosen for contrast with its famous predecessor, "Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy," by the sociologist Barrington Moore. It is as if the economists are saying, "You've had your go. It is now our turn."

One thing follows when economists have a go: Occam's razor is wielded ruthlessly. Occam's razor is the principle associated with a medieval Franciscan monk, William of Ockham, which extols simplicity over complexity: in his words, "plurality should not be posited without necessity." This has, over time, become an important principle in distinguishing good from less-good science, useful from less-useful descriptions of reality.

Acemoglu and Robinson take this cut-the-chaff exhortation to heart. A few simple and sharp answers are provided even for the complex and difficult questions that are at the heart of the book: why and how does democracy arise? Why and how does democracy take root in some places at some times, while making only cameo appearances in others?

Acemoglu and Robinson daringly reduce the determinants of democratization to three or perhaps four: the level of inequality in society; the structure of the economy (i.e. whether it is predominantly agrarian or otherwise); the kind of assets owned by the elites; and the extent of globalization.

It is remarkable how many historical experiences-in Latin America, Europe, and Africa-- can be explained by the simple theory put forward by the authors. For example, Argentina's frequent lurching between various forms democracy and autocracy follow neatly from the high levels of inequality, which made the elites very resistant to democratization and the consequent redistribution of wealth away from them that political change would entail.

To be sure, the fit between theory and the historical experience is not perfect, and the authors are candid about this. Some of the cases that the book does not discuss-India's ability to maintain democracy in the face of overwhelming odds, for example--have traditionally defied easy explanation, even for political scientists. And there are surely cases where non-economic factors such as ideology, individuals (leaders), randomness, and unintended consequence, have had a significant role in determining the path of political development. For example, if Sir Sewoosagur Ramgoolam, Mauritius' first Prime Minister, had responded to the referendum before independence by entrenching the majority Hindus rather than assuaging the minority by guaranteeing minimal political participation for the latter, Mauritius might well have been like the archetypal, strife-ridden, ethnically divided African country rather than a durable democracy.

A quibble about the book's structure. While there are considerable rewards to reading the book, patience and deft maneuvering through the thicket of mathematics, are required to reap them. The authors could have demarcated more clearly the Greek from the English to allow the mathematically challenged to obtain the benefits in one continuous flow. That way, the book could have been more accessible to the curious generalist in addition to being a required reference for the specialist.

But these minor shortcomings are ultimately swamped by, and are perhaps even the unavoidable consequence of, the sheer ambitiousness of the effort: nothing less than to provide a simple and unified explanation of democracy. And here's the additional bonus, the theory can be taken to the data, and even falsified. So, the skeptics and the naysayers can have their go, and refute or validate. Either way, inquiry will be furthered and the stock of knowledge enriched. The most memorable rendition of Occam's razor is due to Einstein: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." The book certainly meets that standard.
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on January 24, 2006
This substantial work provides a useful review of the relevant literature, and outlines the simple but powerful idea that the political impact of different types of assets [land, labor or capital] and the costs of repression rather than democratization are key influences on the process of democratization or political repression. This approach has however already been spelt out more succinctly by Carles Boix.

But unfortunately much of the book's approach is fundamentally flawed when the authors then proceed to put their ideas into models based on game theory. They rapidly lose sight of the old reality check - 'garbage in, garbage out'. No model however neatly laid out will tell us much if the initial premise is flawed, and many of the theories here are too simplified to be anything beyond a classroom exercise. The whole book is based on Median Voter Theory [MVT} - but even many distinguished scholars in this field like Alberto Alesina have been pointing out for years that MVT has never been shown to hold true in real life complexities.

Some other key ideas are simply not addressed - the importance of fiscal bargaining, usually to fund foreign wars, as the origins of democracy is dismissed in one sentence, and yet is the best documented source of democratization - see major works by Charles Tilly and Robert Bates.

Other more specific technical detail - such as the ratio of voters to taxpayers, or the ratio of public employees to taxpayers, are not outlined let alone explained and yet clearly have great impact on the topic. Broad generalizations about elites are simply inadequate -- many elites are much more than the 'rich'; and even the authors admit they have no explanation for their argument on the likelihood of military coups that the military, presumably recruited from the broad mass of the population, would choose to side with either elites or taxpayers because of future tax rates. In real life complex bureaucratic incentive structures often turn the 'agents' into the 'principals' and they then doubly benefit from also being future pensioners of the state -- recent attention paid to intergenerational accounting implications of taxation do not figure here either.

Even more distrurbing, the authors have nothing to say on the conflicts of interests between the 'elite sub-groups' of taxpayers and bondholders -- yet scholars such as Dornbusch & Draghi {Public Debt Management: Cambridge 1990] have shown that taxation to pay government debts to bondholders was profoundly regressive throughout the 19th century -- the very period of democratization outlined in this book: so how did that happen?

Furthermore some of the history is also wrong - widening of the franchise in 1832 in Britain was intended as a way to give the vote to existing taxpayers, not vice versa.

The authors have overlooked many stimulating classics in this field - e.g. Sydney Buxton's major work 'Finance and Politics' from 1888.

Most irritatingly the book is littered with reference to the authors' claims to originality for their work in various 'important findings' -- but when did such conclusions cease to be the prerogative of the reader?
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on October 15, 2010
Acemoglu and Robinson present a clear, straightforward and compelling explanation of the conditions under which political democracy emerges from dictatorship. The strength of their analysis, as they repeated tell us, flows from their use of that key tool on the economist's workbench, the so-called rational actor model (p. 19). "We stress individual economic incentives as determining political attitudes, and we assume people behave strategically in the sense of game theory.'' (p. xii) Theirs is also a clear-cut class analysis, although by contrast with Karl Marx, the classes are defined mainly by their relationship to state power rather than the means of production (although that matters as well, as we shall see). "We emphasize the fundamental importance of conflict," they assert. "Different groups, sometimes social classes, have opposing interests over political outcomes and these translate into opposing interests over the form of political institutions which determine the political outcomes." (p. xii).

The main social groupings in the non-democratic society, according to Acemoglu and Robinson, are the elite that controls the state and the citizens, who are blocked from exercising political power. "Nondemocracy is rule by the elite; democracy is rule by the more numerous groups who constitute the majority... In nondemocracy, the elite get the policies it wants; in democracy, the citizens have more power to get what they want." (p. xii) The authors claim that there is a single dynamic leading from nondemocracy to democracy: "We argue that this only occurs because the disenfranchised citizens can threaten the elite and force it to make concessions.... In the limit, a revolution... repression is often sufficiently costly that it is not an attractive option for elites.'' (p. xii) Acemoglu and Robinson elaborate by noting that simply making non-structural concessions to the enraged masses might not be sufficient to head off revolt, because the concessions can be revoked once the collective action spirit dissipates. The concession of political democracy, by contrast, creates a long-term alternative set of rules of the game in which the previously omnipotent elites no long have the power to get their way.

There is one additional conceptual tool on Acemoglu and Robinson's workbench, that of social class. First, the authors assert that state repression does not hurt landlords much but it is very harmful to capitalists because the latter benefit from freedom of movement, speech, and consensual labor relations, whereas traditional landlords never really get beyond the stage of medieval social relations p. 288). Hence industrial capitalism has an elective affinity with democracy that is completely absent from earlier economic formations based on agriculture. Second, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the elites are more likely to accede to democracy when there is a strong middle class (entrepreneurs, academics, professionals), because the latter will not allow so much power to pass to the unwashed masses as to seriously threaten the wealth and influence of the elites (p. 255, 258).

Acemoglu and Robinson's argument is so powerful that one might be forgiven for overlooking its weak points. But it does have some significant weak points. First, it assumes that there is a monolithic elite and a potentially monolithic citizenry. Neither of these is in general correct. For instance, often there will be conflicts among the elites, one side drawing on support from the lower classes to defeat the other. This was the case in Great Britain in the passage to democracy.

Second, and more important, I think it is just false that political democracy is compromise in which the elite gives up hegemonic power and the citizenry gives up the vision of revolution and complete mass hegemony. As Samuel Bowles and I argued in Capitalism and Democracy (Basic Books, 1985), large-scale collective actions have virtually always had the goal of social emancipation, in which the common man and woman are endowed with the blessings of liberty and in which democratic institutions are desired not only because they lead to an alteration in the distribution of wealth, but also because political democracy is desirable in its own right, given the nature of our species as, to use Aristotle's term, zoon politicon.

Third, Acemoglu and Robinson incompletely address the question as to why the dominant movement in the past two centuries has been from nondemocracy to democracy. Their recognition that capitalism and middle classes are relatively favorable to democracy explains part of this movement. But I think another crucial element is the emergence of modern warfare based on infantry with small arms weapons. Elite control of the state goes along with small armies of elite and/or mercenary mounted warriors with a heavy capital cost per man, whereas enlisting the common man to participate in national armies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries required ceding the suffrage to the masses.

Acemoglu and Robinson do not appear to realize that their commitment to the rational actor model does not oblige them to model all social behavior as self-interested, and all political goals as materialistic. There are whole dimensions of social and moral history absent from their account because they do not accept that the fight for dignity and freedom is just as central to collective action as the fight for shoes, a coat, and a job. Nor can they possibly understand why collective action even takes place unless they admit that people fight and die for ideals, and for comforts that will only be enjoyed by those who come after them. There is another volume to be added in explain the emergence of democracy---not a volume hostile to Acemoglu and Robinson's effort, but rather fleshing out the moral and emancipatory thrust of modern collective action.
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on November 5, 2011
This is a very interesting and relevant economical analysis of the institutional development. I have read many other texts on the subject of institutional evolution by people like Avner Greif, Peyton Young, Samuel Bowles and Elinor Ostrom - this book gives quite a lot new on the subject and is very well written and even if mathematical it is not too complicated.

The Kindle version of the book is however horrible. The mathematical formulas as such are mostly ok, but when the text refers to the symbols used in the formulas the symbols are to big extent (25% ?) wrong. Amazon must draw back the Kindle version. I have read several (15) Kindle books already - also books which use mathematical formulas extensively. Like Bowles and Gintis book "Cooperative Species" - A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. In general I have been very happy with Kindle and reading experience - specifically I have been pretty happy with how the mathematical formulas are reproduced in the Kindle books (e.g. the book by Bowles and Gintis). IT books also show e.g. the XML documents OK.

The question really arises has anybody read this Kindle version of the book before this has been published.
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on October 4, 2006
My opinion on this book lies some where between the two already presented. The application of economics and game theory to this problem is most definitely original and is the greatest achievement of the book. It is a tribute to the authors that such a simple model that so ruthless applies Occam's razor can explain so much, however the work is flawed it simply does not reflect reality. The reasons behind democratisations are more complex than this model, as powerful as it is, can reflect. This book and the model developed within should be viewed as beginning which other works can develop and expand upon. I have no doubt that economists will continue to contibute to this field with more advanced and better models. For this reason alone political scientists and historians should not ignore this text, but rather accept it for what it is a new way of looking at an old problem.
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on September 3, 2014
Both the thesis and the science behind this book are sound and interesting. However, the book is overly technical for bed-time reading - in particular regarding the heavy use of advanced statistical methods.

If you are into statistics and the technical issues fo building a statistical model for democracy and dictatorships - which this book is about - it is well worth both the money and the time it takes to read it. If you are not into building statistical methods, you are much better off reading their other book: Why Nations Fail.
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on December 8, 2014
Superb book. Empiricism and reason without ideology. However, the book is not for those looking to have their values reinforced with simplistic slogans or assumptions. Acemoglu and Robinson read with McCloskey and Piketty will change your economic perspective forever.
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on May 13, 2014
I purchased this book with several others and they all arrived in mint condition, as described, within the time frame designated. I will certainly purchase from this buyer again. Can't wait to get into all these new books in my library!
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on March 30, 2010
These guys have a great theory as to how democracy and the rule of law get started. It explains an awful lot about what's going on in the world today, such as why democracy and the rule of law doesn't take hold in many countries. It has had the biggest impact on my political thinking as anything I've read in a long time.

Chapter two is the heart of the book, and it's easily worth the price for just that chapter alone.
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on September 6, 2012
The book offers a well researched account of the linkages between the conduct of various leaders, and prevailing economic imperatives. It reinforces the well understood notion of the relationship between politics and economics, mainly as a means to obtain access to limited resources. The evidence is of the indeed linkage compelling, regardless with geographical location, race and creed. A worthwhile read for students of contemporary politics.
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