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Customer Review

70 of 87 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Mangy hedgehog thinking, March 26, 2012
This review is from: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Hardcover)
The most startling revelation provided by this book is the total disconnect between, on the one hand, the hype (see amazon page) and the credentials of the authors and, on the other, the actual delivered contents. The first author has a chair at MIT and a John Bates Clark medal, the second has a chair at Harvard. But surely, please, not for this sort of thing. They have one idea, which, in so far as it has any substance, is that 'extractive institutions are bad'. They claim to find extractive institutions where bad things are, and not where good things are. They don't actually provide a useful definition of what an extractive institution is, though they have a long list of places where things did not go well, which are supposed to illustrate 'extractive' situations, and places where things did go well as not. This vagueness is sensible, because they apply the label to so many different things that there is no possibility that I could see of a useful operational definition.

Of the many mangy hedgehogs I have encountered in 'one big idea' world history, this is surely the mangiest.

They manage, for instance, to be confident that they can diagnose 'extractive' institutions in Mayan civilization and various neolithic arrangements in the middle east. Their claims about the fine structure of political institutions in 2000BC in what was to become Syria, or where-ever it was, are on the basis of distributions of flint arrow heads and the like. Never do they discuss (or even appear to stop to wonder) what, exactly, a non-extractive institution would look like in situations like this, or how you would distinguish it on the basis of the surviving archeological evidence.

One thing I was interested to read to was their prognosis for China, but this boils down to very little more than 'China has bad institutions, which are bad because in the long term they won't allow the sort of creative destruction that an economy cannot avoid if it is going to continue to grow to rich nation levels of prosperity'. Really?

If you have read people like Mancur Olson, and your ideas about political economy and political sociology are even a little bit more sophisticated than what you can find in nerdy libertarian science fiction (or, come to think of it, than you can learn from full professors at MIT or Harvard), then there is no insight here worth stopping for that I could identify. Not that I actually stopped for all four hundred-odd pages; after a while, I simply got tired ploughing through endless pages of low-content penny-a-word prose and started skimming more and more rapidly (even on its own terms, this is at most a hundred page essay, not a four hundred page book).

For this level of insight I paid 14EUR? Oswald Spengler is at least fun to read.

P.S. [addendum that occurred to me after a recent evening run] This is not a history book. The authors are not historians, and they do not think like historians (they are an economist and a political scientist); they have no interest in the past except to cherry pick examples to relate to the present. This is essentially a disposable policy wonk essay blown up to a book, and all the hype is in policy wonk circles, not historian circles. Its purpose is to reassure a specific class of policy wonks who are desperate to be reassured by what they see as figures of authority (MIT economist, Harvard political scientist), that, in spite of current pessimism, yes, liberal democratic capitalism is the best way to arrange a society, and it will prevail (that there is no Untergang des Abendlandes, if you like). This may be true (I even think so - the first bit, at least), but this book makes no original or substantial case, it's just a (shallow, whiggish) sermon to the converted. Interestingly, the authors even implicitly acknowledge that what they have written is a disposable policy wonk essay, since they chose to issue it in a 'business book' imprint, and not with Cambridge or Princeton University press, which is where they usually publish (or maybe CUP and PUP simply declined the offer).
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 6, 2013 6:56:37 AM PST
Tony Mc says:
Couldn't have said it better myself. I was talking to another friend of mine and he said the stopped reading it at half way because of the repetitive nature of the book. The penny a word comment is a good one. Spot on.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 27, 2013 4:16:49 AM PST
theRook says:
Great review, I'm only a couple of chapters in and your review describes my initial impressions.
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