Oct 052014

From the book, Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

“Why is Egypt so much poorer than the United States?” This is the essence of the question at the heart of this book.

Is it culture, the weather, geography? Perhaps ignorance of what the right policies are? Simply, no. None of these factors is either definitive or destiny. Otherwise, how to explain why Botswana has become one of the fastest-growing countries in the world, while other African nations, such as Zimbabwe, the Congo, and Sierra Leone, are mired in poverty and violence?

The authors argue that the difference is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success. And they reject the dominant view held by most economists that “the rulers of Egypt simply don’t know what is needed to make their country prosperous, and have followed incorrect policies and strategies in the past. If these rulers would only get the right advice from the right advisers, the thinking goes, prosperity would follow.”

Most economists and policy makers have focused on ‘getting it right,’ while what is really needed is an explanation for why poor nations ‘get it wrong.’ … We will argue that achieving prosperity depends on solving some basic political problems. It is precisely because economics has assumed that political problems are solved that is has not been able to come up with a convincing explanation for world inequality. Explaining world inequality still needs economics to understand how different types of policies and social arrangements affect economic incentives and behavior. But it also needs politics. (from the Introduction)

The Making of Inclusive Institutions

England was unique among nations when it made the breakthrough to sustained economic growth in the seventeenth century. Major economic changes were preceded by a political revolution that brought a distinct set of economic and political institutions, much more inclusive than those of any previous society. These institutions would have profound implications not only for economic incentives and prosperity, but also for who would reap the benefits of prosperity. They were based not on consensus, but, rather, were the result of intense conflict as different groups competed for power, contesting the authority of others and attempting to structure institutions in their own favor. The culmination of the institutional struggles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were two landmark events: the English Civil War between 1642 and 1651, and particularly the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

The Glorious Revolution limited the power of the king and the executive, and relocated to Parliament the power to determine economic institutions. At the same time, it opened up the political system to a broad cross section of society, who were able to exert considerable influence over the way the state functioned. The Glorious Revolution was the foundation for creating a pluralistic society, and it built on and accelerated a process of political centralization. It created the world’s first set of inclusive political institutions.

As a consequence, economic institutions also started becoming more inclusive. Neither slavery nor the severe economic restrictions of the feudal medieval period, such as serfdom, existed in England at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Nevertheless, there were many restrictions on economic activities people could engage in. Both the domestic and international economy were choked by monopolies. The state engaged in arbitrary taxation and manipulated the legal system. Most land was caught in archaic forms of property rights that made it impossible to sell and risky to invest in.

This changed after the Glorious Revolution. The government adopted a set of economic institutions that provided incentives for investment, trade, and innovation. It steadfastly enforced property rights, including patents granting property rights for ideas, thereby providing a major stimulus to innovation. It protected law and order. Historically unprecedented was the application of English law to all citizens. Arbitrary taxation ceased, and monopolies were abolished almost completely. The English state aggressively promoted mercantile activities and worked to promote domestic industry, not only by removing barriers to the expansion of industrial activity but also by lending the full power of the English navy to defend mercantile interests. By rationalizing property rights, it facilitated the construction of infrastructure, particularly roads, canals, and later railways, that would prove to be crucial for industrial growth.

These foundations decisively changed incentives for people and impelled the engines of prosperity, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution. (p 102-3)

Small Differences That Matter

World inequality dramatically increased with the British, or English, Industrial Revolution because only some parts of the world adopted the innovations and new technologies that men such as Arkwright and Watt, and the many who followed, developed. The response of different nations to this wave of technologies, which determined whether they would languish in poverty or achieve sustained economic growth, was largely shaped by the different historical paths of their institutions. By the middle of the eighteenth century, there were already notable differences in political and economic institutions around the world. But where did these differences come from?

English political institutions were on their way to much greater pluralism by 1688, compared with those in France and Spain, but if we go back in time one hundred years, to 1588, the differences shrink to almost nothing. All three countries were ruled by relatively absolutist monarchs: Elizabeth I in England, Philip II in Spain, and Henry II in France. All were battling with assemblies of citizens – such as the Parliament in England, the Cortes in Spain, and the Estates-General in France – that were demanding more rights and control over the monarchy. These assemblies all had somewhat different powers and scopes. For instance, the English Parliament and the Spanish Cortes had power over taxation, while the Estates-General did not. In Spain this mattered little, because after 1492 the Spanish Crown had a vast American empire and benefited massively from the gold and silver found there. In England the situation was different. Elizabeth I was far less financially independent, so she had to beg Parliament for more taxes. In exchange, Parliament demanded concessions, in particular restrictions on the right of Elizabeth to create monopolies. It was a conflict Parliament gradually won. In Spain the Cortes lost a similar conflict. Trade wasn’t just monopolized; it was monopolized by the Spanish monarchy.

These distinctions, which initially appeared small, started to matter a great deal in the seventeenth century. Though the Americas had been discovered by 1492 and Vasco da Gama had reached India by rounding the Cape of Good Hope, at the southern tip of Africa, in 1498, it was only after 1600 that a huge expansion of world trade, particularly in the Atlantic, started to take place. In 1585 the first English colonization of North America began at Roanoke, in what is not North Carolina. In 1600 the English East India Company was formed. In 1602 it was followed by the Dutch equivalent. In 1607 the colony of Jamestown was founded by the Virginia Company. By the 1620s the Caribbean was being colonized, with Barbados occupied in 1627. France was also expanding in the Atlantic, founding Quebec City in 1608 as the capital of New France in what is now Canada. The consequences of this economic expansion for institutions were very different for England than for Spain and France because of small initial differences.

Elizabeth I and her successors could not monopolize the trade with the Americas. Other European monarchs could. So while in England, Atlantic trade and colonization started creating a large group of wealthy traders with few links to the Crown, this was not the case in Spain or France. The English traders resented royal control and demanded changes in political institutions and the restriction of royal prerogatives. They played a critical role in the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution. Similar conflicts took place everywhere. French kings, for example, faced the Fronde Rebellion between 1648 and 1652. The difference was that in England it was far more likely that the opponents to absolutism would prevail because they were relatively wealthy and more numerous than the opponents to absolutism in Spain and France.

The divergent paths of English, French, and Spanish societies in the seventeenth century illustrate the importance of the interplay of small institutional differences with critical junctures. (p 105-6)

The Dutch East India Company

The spice trade and the effects on Southeast Asia of the colonization into Indonesia

In the early sixteenth century the Portuguese “systematically tried to gain a monopoly of the valuable spice trade”, but they failed…

The opponents they faced were not negligible. Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, there was a great deal of economic development in Southeast Asia based on trade in spices. City-states such as Aceh, Banten, Meleka, Makassar, Pegu, and Brunei expanded rapidly, producing and exporting spices along with other products such as hardwoods.

These states had absolutist forms of government similar to those in Europe in the same period. The development of political institutions was spurred by similar processes, including technological change in methods of warfare and international trade. State institutions became more centralized, with a king at the center claiming absolute power. …

As in absolutist Europe, this generated some economic growth but was a far-from-ideal set of economic institutions for economic prosperity, with significant entry barriers and insecure property rights for most. But the process of commercialization was under way even as the Portuguese were trying to establish their dominance in the Indian Ocean.

The presence of Europeans swelled and had a much greater impact with the arrival of the Dutch. The Dutch quickly realized that monopolizing the supply of the valuable spices of the Moluccas would be much more profitable than competing against local or other European traders. In 1600 they persuaded the ruler of Ambon to sign an exclusive agreement that gave them the monopoly on the clove trade in Ambon. With the founding of the Dutch East India Company in 1602, the Dutch attempts to capture the entire spice trade and eliminate their competitors, by hook or by crook, took a turn for the better for the Dutch and for the worse for Southeast Asia. The Dutch East India Company was the second European joint stock company, following the English East India Company, major landmarks in the development of the modern corporation, which would subsequently play a major role in European industrial growth. It was also the second company that had its own army and the power to wage war and colonize foreign lands. With the military power of the company now brought to bear, the Dutch proceeded to eliminate all potential interlopers to enforce their treaty with ruler of Ambon. They captured a key fort held by the Portuguese in 1605 and forcibly removed all other traders. They then expanded to the northern Moluccas, forcing the rulers of Tidore, Ternate, and Bacan to agree that no cloves could be grown or traded in their territories. The treaty they imposed on Ternate even allowed the Dutch to come and destroy any clove trees they found there.

Ambon was ruled in a manner similar to much of Europe and the Americas during that time. The citizens of Ambon owed tribute to the ruler and were subject to forced labor. The Dutch took over and intensified these systems to extract more labor and more cloves from the island. Prior to the arrival of the Dutch, extended families paid tribute in cloves to the Ambonese elite. The Dutch now stipulated that each household was tied to the soil and should cultivate a certain number of clove trees. Households were also obligated to deliver forced labor to the Dutch.

The Dutch also took control of the Banda Islands, intending this time to monopolize mace and nutmeg. But the Banda Islands were organized very differently from Ambon. They were made up of many small autonomous city-states, and there was no hierarchical social or political structure. These small states, in reality no more than small towns, were run by village meetings of citizens. There was no central authority whom the Dutch could coerce into signing a monopoly treaty and no system of tribute that they could take over to capture the entire supply of nutmeg and mace. At first this meant that the Dutch had to compete with English, Portuguese, Indian, and Chinese merchants, losing the spices to their competitors when they did not pay high prices. Their initial plans of setting up a monopoly of mace and nutmeg dashed, the Dutch governor of Batavia, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, came up with an alternative plan. Coen founded Batavia, on the island of Java, as the Dutch East India Company’s new capital in 1618. In 1621 he sailed to Banda with a fleet and proceeded to massacre almost the entire population of the islands, probably about fifteen thousand people. All their leaders were executed along with the rest, and only a few were left alive, enough to preserve the know-how necessary for mace and nutmeg production. After this genocide was complete, Coen then proceeded to create the political and economic structure necessary for his plan: a plantation society. The islands were divided into sixty-eight parcels, which were given to sixty-eight Dutchmen, mostly former and current employees of the Dutch East India Company. These new plantation owners were taught how to produce the spices by the few surviving Bandanese and could buy slaves from the East India Company to populate the now-empty islands and to produce spices, which would have to be sold at fixed prices back to the company.

The extractive institutions created by the Dutch in spice Islands had the desired effects, though, in Banda this was at the cost of fifteen thousand innocent lives and establishment of a set of economic and political institutions that would condemn the islands to underdevelopment. By the end of the seventeenth century, the Dutch had reduced the world supply of these spices by about 60 percent and the price of nutmeg had doubled.

The Dutch spread the strategy they perfected in the Moluccas to the entire region, with profound implications for the economic and political institutions of the rest of Southeast Asia. The long commercial expansion of several states in the area that had started in the fourteenth century went into reverse. Even the policies which were not directly colonized and crushed by the Dutch East India Company turned inward and abandoned trade. The nascent economic and political change in Southeast Asia was halted in its tracks.” (p 246-9)

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