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Wielding Occam's Razor
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.