Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Research Question: What explains the major differences in poverty and prosperity and the patterns of growth throughout the globe?

Thesis: World inequality is caused by differences in political and economic institutions. Rich countries are rich largely because they developed inclusive institutions (centralized and pluralist) at some point in the past three hundred years, while poor countries are poor because they are dominated by extraction and exclusive political institutions.

Approach: Acemoglu and Robinson take a largely linear and historical approach to explaining world inequality, with a focus on politics and political processes

Key Definitions

Extractive economy: a resource-based economy dependent on harvesting or extracting natural resources for sale or trade. Extractive economies are defined by political and economic exclusion with elites controlling a largely disproportionate amount of the extraction process.

Creative destruction: Defined by Joseph Schumpeter as a “process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.”

Chapter 2: Pages 45-69

According to Acemoglu and Robinson, there are three main theories of the causes of world inequality, all of which have some level of credence in the academic community and general public, but all of which are wrong.

The Geography Hypothesis

  • Claims that the great divide between rich and poor countries is created by geographical differences
  • Modern version of the hypothesis emphasizes that climate has an effect on productivity in two ways:
    1. Health – tropical diseases have adverse consequences for health and labour productivity
    2. Agriculture – tropical soils do not allow for productive agriculture
  • Therefore, temperate climates have a relative advantage over tropical and semitropical areas
  • Acemoglu and Robinson: The geography hypothesis cannot account for economic divergences within regions and nations (north and south Nogales, North and South Korea). Moreover, it is simply not true that the tropics have always been poorer than temperate latitudes (50).

The Culture Hypothesis

  • Relates religion, national values, and other types of beliefs and ethics to prosperity.
  • For instance, “Africans are poor because they lack a good work ethnic, still believe in witchcraft and magic, [and] resist new Western technologies” (57).
  • Acemoglu and Robinson: The culture hypothesis, like the geography hypothesis does not adequately explain major economic divergences within regions and nations – those that have shared culture and history. Moreover, the culture hypothesis tends to reverse cause and effect, in that political and economic institutions can shape culture, and not necessarily the other way around.
    • Mexicans trust government less than Americans. This cultural factor does not result in economic underdevelopment, but is a result of economic underdevelopment and a government that cannot eliminate drug cartels or maintain rule of law.

The Ignorance Hypothesis

  • Asserts that world inequality exists because we or our rulers do not know how to make poor countries rich.
  • This idea is the one held by most economists – that poor countries experience market failures and economists and policymakers alike do not know how to eliminate them. In contrast, rich countries have succeeded in eliminating these market failures.
  • Common perception that leaders of developing countries, African leaders in particular, have mistaken views of how to run their countries, resulting in gross economic mismanagement
  • Acemoglu and Robinson: Ignorance is at best a small part of world inequality (64). Authors cite example of Ghana under Nkrumah. Nkrumah had the advice of Nobel laureate Sir Arthur Lewis, yet still executed many economically irrational projects, such as an infamous failed mango canning plant, because they were politically expedient (65).
  • According to Acemoglu and Robinson, “Poor countries are poor because those in power make choices that create poverty. They get it wrong not by mistake, but on purpose” (68). The motivation can be self-enrichment, maintenance of power, or both.

Chapters 5-8: Pages 134-244

  • Chapters 5-8 of Why Nations Fail see Acemoglu and Robinson give a historical overview of successive civilizations, their economic and political institutions, and the effect of those institutions on economic growth
  • Natufians (establishing extraction) –> Mayans (conflict) –> Venetians (reversal) –> Rome (reversal & conflict)
  • They assert that institutional drift creates institutional differences, albeit small, which get amplified when they interact with critical junctures (180)
  • British Industrial Revolution of the 18th century as next main point of economic growth after Neolithic Revolution. A result of institutional drift from the fall of the Roman Empire and several critical junctures
    • Societies responded differently to the Industrial Revolution based on their existing political institutions. These differentiated responses in turn affected their levels of economic prosperity.


  • There is some limited degree of economic success that can be achieved through extractive institutions. Creating such growth requires a centralized state. To centralize the state, a political revolution is often necessary (King Shyaam)
  • Growth generated by extractive institutions is very different in nature from growth created under inclusive institutions (150). It is not sustainable for two reasons:
    • Lack of creative destruction and innovation – no incentive for either elites or non-elites (183-184)
    • Reversal of centralization – incentive for conflict, war, and infighting as others fight to replace the elite. Leads to breakdown of law and order and descent into chaos
      • Ultimately, a regime based on extractive institutions will break down

Chapter 9: Pages 250-273The All-Too-Usual Institution: Slavery

Acemoglu and Robinson provide figures to demonstrate how the Atlantic Slave Trade greatly ramped up the existing slave trade in Africa, with well over 10 000 000 Africans eventually being shipped out of the continent as slaves (251).

According to Acemoglu and Robinson, the Atlantic Slave Trade initiated two adverse political processes in Africa:

  • Many polities became absolutist with the single objective of capturing and selling slaves to Europeans (extraction).
  • Constant warring and slaving destroyed any sense of order or legitimate state authority that existed in sub-Saharan Africa (reversal of centralization).
  • When slavery was abolished in England and the United States, African civilizations went from one extractive industry (slavery) to another (forced labour in ‘legitimate commerce’). Slaves were simply redeployed into exporting goods such as palm oil, peanuts, ivory, and rubber.
  • The advent of formal colonization after the Scramble for Africa only resulted in more extraction.
  • Thus, “given the extractive economic and political institutions based on the slave trade, industrialization did not spread to sub-Saharan Africa, which stagnated or even experienced economic retardation as other parts of the world were transforming their economies” (258).


Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012. Print.

Owning the Arts

I don’t want my most recent post addressing the problems of the ivory tower to detract from a very important message: the arts and humanities are important and academic study in the arts and humanities is important. Yes, despite my ceaseless complaining, I really do love studying English. And there’s more love to go around for history, geography, gender studies, cultural studies, religious studies, film studies, the visual arts, etc., etc.

Now, this current post is not meant to function as naked cheerleading for an arts degree. It’s a very tough job market for our ilk and for that reason, among others, the arts aren’t for everyone. What I am more interested in is addressing the inferiority complex I see in so many young undergraduates already committed to the arts, an inferiority complex imposed by an instrumentalist, growth-driven, capitalist culture.

I would like to turn to Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. In this manifesto, Nussbaum writes that “The humanities and arts are being cut away, in primary/secondary and university education, in virtually every nation of the world…They are seen by policymakers as useless frills, at a time when nations must cut away all useless things in order to stay competitive in the global market” (2). Similarly, Daniel Rigney refers to the devaluation of forms of thought that don’t promise immediate practical payoffs as “unreflective instrumentalism” (444), the most prominent form of anti-intellectualism in North America. So yes, capitalism is the source of the inferiority complex. Surprise, surprise.

Nussbaum argues that we need the arts and humanities to foster democratic citizenship and civic engagement, which hinge on the abilities to think critically, examine, debate, reflect, and empathize (25). I agree with her. After all, an arts education cultivates:

  • Critical thinking skills that help people to question authority, stand up to peer pressure, weigh evidence, and resist the groupthink that can lead to atrocities.
    • The idea here is that arts students form an integral part of the culture of individual dissent necessary for a healthy democracy (Nussbaum 53).
    • I’d like to think we are seeing evidence of a culture of individual dissent in the current American election. Of course, it’s certainly not only of the liberal variety (I’m referring to Trump supporters). We need critical thinking and dissent to go hand in hand.
  • Empathy, or the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes. The more one learns and reads about the experiences and perspectives of others, the easier empathy becomes. In our social and political lives, empathy is undoubtedly essential, yet so consistently undervalued in a world of unending conflict and greed.
  • Cosmopolitan thinking (Nussbaum 79-80): The ability to transcend local loyalties and think critically about global issues. For instance cosmopolitan thinking helps to produce multilateral solutions to problems in a globalized world — think of collective security, climate change, human trafficking, and countless other examples.
  • Critical discourse that helps students reflect upon what ends, both material and ideal, are worth pursuing in society (Rigney 447).
    • For instance, an arts education can encourage reflection on distribution and social inequality, rather than just the “unfettered pursuit of growth” (Nussbaum 22).
    • Ideally, arts students would endeavour to make make this critical discourse public, to encourage others to do the same reflection.

All of these skills, abilities, and values are reasons why arts degrees are both necessary and valuable in our society, even if they are not always recognized as such. It’s important to keep these reasons in mind when it feels like the world is beating you down, berating you for pursuing a “useless” degree instead of one based in technical reason, with a clear path to financial success.

And as a final note, if anyone reading this is grappling with how exactly to respond to all those people who will inevitably ask why you’re not studying something more “practical,” I suggest you just adopt the easy, breezy response of my girl, Lupita Nyong’o (who studied drama at Yale): “Hey man, it’s [just] not my style.”


Lupita always knows best.


Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Rigney, Daniel. “Three Kinds of Anti-Intellectualism: Rethinking Hofstadter.” Sociological Inquiry 61.4 (1991): 434-451.

The Public Track

The arts and humanities academy as it exists today in North America is the embodiment of the ivory tower. It is both socially remote and politically removed. What factors have produced this ivory tower? Mostly specialization and insulation from the market.

I don’t want to spend much time on the problems, though. I would prefer to think about possible solutions.

My proposed solution is a two-track system, which would be made up of the academic track we have today and a new, public track. Here is an outline of the public track:

  • Public engagement through scholarship will be its first priority.
  • The public track will be open to non-academic intellectuals, and will include a path to tenure and advancement in academic institutions.
  • The generalist will be rewarded over the specialist.
    • There will be no expectation of original research.
  • Academics in the public track will stay on pulse with public interest and values, not only to serve them, but ideally, to shape them.
  • This track will heavily stress the use of new media and digital technologies with the hopes of reaching a large audience.
    • That includes the feature of online public lectures.
  • Internal support structures – financial and institutional – will be available to facilitate public production and engagement.

It would be a logistical nightmare to implement these changes, absolutely. But in this instrumentalist, growth-driven, capitalist culture, where the arts and humanities academy increasingly needs to justify its existence in order to survive, a public track that responds to public interests, values, and needs could provide that justification. Because much more absurd than radically altering our system now would be submitting down the road to a system akin to the  British one where, as Martha Nussbaum (127-28) writes,

Ever since the Thatcher era, it has been customary for humanities departments…to be required to justify themselves to the government, which funds all academic institutions, by showing how their research and and teaching contribute to economic profitability. If they cannot show this, their government support will drop and the number of faculty and students decline. Whole departments may even be closed down, as numerous classics and philosophy programs have been…Where departments are not closed, they are often merged these days with other units whose contribution to profit is even more obvious — thus putting pressure on the merged discipline to emphasize those parts of its own scope that lie closer to profit, or can be made to seem to.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Nussbaum’s excerpt reveals the scary reality that is the current state of the liberal arts in a country with one of the richest histories in philosophy, literature, and theatre. It would be foolish to think that a similar profit model is out of the realm of possibility in Canada, so we might as well start making some changes now.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.


So, this blog has been loosely tied to the idea of ‘publics’ since its inception. I’m not sure how obvious that has been, but yeah, that has been the underlying theme. I’ve been thinking a lot about publics lately, especially in relation to this blog. Here is a summary of my thoughts:

  • The definition of public is important.
    • Trying to define a public has opened up a new conceptual space for me.
    • I lean heavily towards Michael Warner’s definition of publics. First, Warner distinguishes between the public and public, with the former being “a kind of social totality” (65) that might refer to “the people organized as the nation, the commonwealth, the city, the state, or some other community” (65). I think that definition of the public would be familiar to most people. As for the concept of a public, that’s a lot more interesting. Warner’s definition of a public alludes to Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities,” without the nationalist focus.
    • It helps me to differentiate a public from an audience by thinking that a public is both notional and empirical, whereas an audience is only empirical (Warner 67). For me, an audience needs to be physically present, so it makes sense that most writers write for a public rather than an audience, as publics are much more diffuse.
  • Publics can be small and publics can be large.
    • My graduate class constitutes a small public, or at least it did when we were mostly strangers. On the opposite end, lately I’ve been considering politics and large, diffuse international publics. For instance, what are the ramifications when a state’s leadership consciously performs for both a national public and an international one, in the interest of, say, encouraging foreign aid and investment? What kind of state or nation does that international public create? And to what extent do all domestic politics serve an international public? I wish I had answers to all these questions. I’ve been mulling them over in relation to V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, which I’ve analyzed previously in terms of surveillance, performance, and the politics of authoritarianism. I will say that a state acting in the service of an international public can promote either stability or instability depending on the circumstances.
  • Changing publics can change the meaning of the message.
    • Jeet Heer provides a great example when he compares genuine black conservatism that derives from the black community and is internally directed with black conservatism co-opted by whites and directed to a majority white audience. The former represents the uplifting ethics of black self-reliance and self-help, while the latter usually amounts to a defence of the racist status quo.
  • This blog has a public
    • I wasn’t sure if it was possible for an anonymous blog to have a public, but then I referred back to Warner, who writes that a public is a self-organized space of discourse and “exists by virtue of being addressed” (67). If that is true, that publics exist only on the receiving end of discourse, then I suppose this blog does have a (very small) public. After all, WordPress statistics tell me that, on average, ten or so new viewers stumble across this blog every week. I wonder, though, how strong a writer’s connection with a public can be if she or he remains anonymous; I would argue that the connection would remain very weak, which negates a lot of the writer’s influence.
  • Being a public intellectual is hard. 
    • With its anonymous nature and tiny public, this blog does not constitute any real attempt on my part at being a public intellectual. Nonetheless, I do believe I have become more intellectual by virtue of writing the blog, and that’s still half the battle of becoming a public intellectual, right?
    • Imagining your public and gearing your writing towards it can be really, really tasking. I always have a public in mind when I write. I mostly imagine my public as made up of other politically perplexed university students, but who knows whether my blog would actually be of interest to such people? I have gained a new respect for public intellectuals because I now have a small sense of the sheer anxiety public production can generate. I am in favour of more academics being public intellectuals, but I’m not sure that would ever be for me.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London-New York: Verso, 1983.

Naipaul, V.S. A Bend in the River. New York: Random House, Inc., 1989. Print.

Seder, Sam. “How to Make It in Conservative America (If You Aren’t White) (w/ Jeet Heer).” YouTube. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.

Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics. New York: Zone, 2002.



Recently, I watched a YouTube video where Jeet Heer talks about his piece for the New Republic called “How to Make It in Conservative America (If You Aren’t White).” Heer discusses the conservative movement and non-white people’s role within it. Heer is Indian and spoke about the racism of some Indian immigrants towards black Canadians. I like Heer a lot, but there was something disturbing about his cheerful tone juxtaposed with the serious discussion of non-black ethnic minorities solidifying their positions in the racial caste system by comparing themselves favourably to blacks, who appear always to occupy the bottom rung of society.

It was painful to hear that. And it was awkward and uncomfortable for me to listen to it  alongside a mostly white audience. There was nothing new to me in the idea that some non-whites buy into racist systems of thought to advance themselves in society, but it still hurt to be reminded once again, and so casually, that black people come last in so many people’s minds.

The pain of being black is something every black person feels everyday. If you open your eyes or interact with other people or engage in public discourse of any kind, everyday you will be reminded in some way that you are regarded as inferior or inconsequential. Critical discussion works to mitigate the pain, but it never eliminates it.

But it’s pain that unites us as black people. It gives us history and shared experiences and shared understandings. It provides us with an infinite number of jokes and inspires our creative performances. It encourages solidarity and activism. Pain is both ingrained and negotiated. And pain is powerful.

Unfortunately, that’s only the upside of pain.

Heer talks about how the conservative movement makes use of non-white people to give credence to the idea that systemic and institutional racism do not affect life chances and outcomes for minorities. Obviously, there are significant policy and legislative implications for such a position. Heer  then contrasts genuine black conservatism that derives from the black community and is internally directed with black conservatism co-opted by whites and directed to a majority white audience. The former represents the uplifting ethics of black self-reliance and self-help, while the latter usually amounts to a defense of the racist status quo. Heer’s comparison underscores the importance of publics. The meaning of a message changes based on the public to which it is addressed.

So how do we refer to those blacks who join the white conservative movement and publicly adopt its racist or colour-blind stances? There are many names for blacks who are deemed as having ‘sold out’ for the purpose of acceptance or advancement. They can be referred to as Uncle Toms, tap dancers, shuck and jivers, or coons. I used to eschew these terms based on principle alone. I regarded them as intolerant, reductionist, and limiting. After all, it is hardly fair that black people, and particularly black conservatives, often find themselves between a rock and a hard place when expressing their views. I don’t think limiting valid discourse is a productive way of solving problems. It’s also interesting that most of those terms are gendered; black women’s opinions are conventionally ignored while black men’s are hyper-scrutinized.

However, sometime in my young adulthood, I came to understand more keenly the pain that created and perpetuates those labels. I definitely identify with the feeling of betrayal that comes when a black person becomes successful, gets a public platform, and then uses it almost immediately to belittle and denigrate those below him or her. It is a common enough occurrence, yet still gut wrenching every time. So while I think pejorative labelling is limiting to productive discourse, I strongly sympathize with the motivations behind it.

Moving forward from there, my perspective on the act of selling out has become more nuanced. I’ve come to understand the pain behind it and I have more empathy now for black people who reject the solidarity rooted in anti-racism. Because being black is hard. It’s a constant burden, and it is a much bigger burden for some than for others. I understand why people don’t want to feel it, and why they turn away from it in pursuit of social mobility.

In that sense, pain divides. It divides black people within themselves and also divides us against each other. Pain is powerful.


Seder, Sam. “How to Make It in Conservative America (If You Aren’t White) (w/ Jeet Heer).” YouTube. 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 07 Apr. 2016.