colonial history

The Binary World of James Robinson: a rebuttal to Why Nations Fail

He came at the invitation of the Angara Centre for Law and Economics to present his ideas from the book Why Nations Fail which he co-authored with Daron Acemoglu. This pair along with Simon Johnson had originally published back in 2001 an article in the American Economic Review entitled The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation.

Their book could be seen as an essay expounding on the themes uncovered by their earlier research which credits economic development to the institution-building conducted during the colonial era between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. It begins by drawing our attention to the differences between Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, towns on opposite sides of the US-Mexican border.

The basic thesis of the book is that nations with institutions that promote greater inclusion in both political and economic spheres prosper while those that foster extractive or predatory policies wind up becoming impoverished and backward. The seminal moment in history, according to the book, happened in England back in 1688 during the Glorious Revolution.

For those not familiar with this event, I provide a brief background here. The basic argument goes a little like this: security of ownership and property rights is essential to investor certainty; investor certainty is needed to foster capital markets, and a set of political checks and balances that guarantee this is best suited for capitalism to flourish.

These principles were essentially what The Glorious Revolution was supposedly fought on and why the Industrial Revolution subsequently took place first in Britain, rather than in Continental Europe. The rights and ideals that Englishmen fought for were transplanted to their American colonies and became the basis for the American declaration of Independence in 1776.

Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (AJR) sought to prove empirically that institutions mattered to development. Previously, it was argued that climate and geography had a lot to do with it, i.e. that the industrious, temperate, northern states of Europe were more prosperous than the sluggish states in the southern Mediterranean and the tropics.

AJR sought to dispel this using colonial history. Why was it that not all colonised countries developed along the path of the United States? The difference lay in institutions. Their article demonstrated that in places where diseases led to high mortality rates among early European settlers, and where consequently hardly any permanent settlements were planted, centuries later, the lack of institutional legacy was found to be significantly correlated with low development.

The main lesson was that geography was not destiny, and that even history was not destiny. Less developed nations could begin adopting the institutions that promoted greater inclusiveness and discard extractive policies that left them in squalor. This dove-tailed with the agenda promoted by Washington on good governance, as it searched for a way to rescue the failed Washington Consensus from repudiation.

What came about was the augmented consensus that said free markets and good governance promote economic growth and development. After decades of telling less developed countries to shrink the role and capacity of the state and let markets rip, they were now saying that government needed to be strengthened once again.

The liberal democratic states of the West act as an ideal to which other societies need to aspire to. No other path leads to sustainable economic growth other than this. Just as Calvinist preachers of old would proclaim that no one cometh to the Father, but by His Son, these economists present a case that no other path leads to economic Nirvana, but through the Market (with Institutions performing the role of the Holy Ghost).

This rather binary view of the world is actually contradicted if you go deeper into the colonial history of the Americas which is what John H. Elliott did in Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492 to 1830.

Here he wrote that it was actually the exclusionary racial policies fostered by the English settlers that led to greater social cohesion among settlers around Enlightenment principles of individual rights and liberties, which in turn led to greater independence and prosperity.

Meanwhile in the Southern hemisphere, the Spanish settlers had an “organic conception of a divinely ordained society dedicated to the achievement of the common good” which was “more inclusive rather than exclusive in approach”. The granting of rights both economic and political to natives consisting of mestizos, creoles and freed slaves led to a mixed-race society prone to greater divisions than existed in the North.

The irony here is that a more inclusive colonial policy led to greater exclusivity as subsequent societies were stratified and organised into “pigmentocracies” which made it harder to achieve the egalitarian principles espoused by the Enlightenment. In the Philippines, the outpost of New Spain, the situation was worse in that apart from developing this multi-racial caste-like system, the facility of a common language was not provided as it was in the Americas.

This is the difficulty of using colonial history to prove or disprove that institutions matter in the way attempted by the authors of Why Nations Fail. They do matter, but in different ways, which is the point I highlighted previously in this column (see here).

Secondly, there is the anomaly of the benign dictators of East Asia and the desarollista states of Latin America. Robinson has taken the view that the East Asian growth formula, what is termed the BeST Consensus (BeST consisting of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo), represent a unique moment in history that cannot really be duplicated or sustained.

Peter Evans disputes this saying that just because the East Asian miracle emerged from a unique blend created by the Cold War policy of the United States, it does not mean that we cannot distil a few basic principles and emulate them today. Just because these states were predominantly autocratic does not mean that weak democratic states cannot adopt the policies that made them succeed in fostering rapid industrialisation (see here for a deeper discussion).

What’s more is that both Germany and the United States, late industrialising Western nations after Britain and France, followed the same industrial policies a century earlier. It was just that after scaling the development wall, they felt the need to “kick the ladder” away to prevent others from following them up because not doing so would disadvantage them.

In Latin America, the record of developmental or desarrollista states of the 1970s and 1980s in Brazil and Mexico is more spotty than in Chile but nonetheless more successful than in Africa or South Asia as these countries made their way into middle income status ahead of countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. This is the evidence that Robinson conveniently sidesteps.

Another point James Robinson makes in the book and in interviews is that collective action, which he equates to people power, is key to expanding opportunity for people if the system is closed. He cites the experience of the Philippines and of the Middle East a la Arab Spring to underscore his point. Again, the use of people power is problematic. Why?

Well as Elliott points out, people power features in Spanish colonial traditions as well because

(b)y the laws of medieval Castile the community could, in certain circumstances, take collective action against a ‘tyrannical’ monarch or minister.

Cortes in fact used this against governor Velasquez who ordered him to survey and not to invade the territory of Montezuma in the Yucatan peninsula. It was based on the notion of a social contract between the prince and his subjects which if broken gave the right of the governed to say, “I obey, but I do not comply” (se obedece pero no se cumple).

From time to time, commoners or comuneros resorted to acts of dissent bordering on revolution. But these were simply seen as a way to get the authorities to the bargaining table. Once their grievances were heard and the tyrannical laws or ministers were replaced, they would go back to living as loyal subjects of the monarch. Direct democracy rather than representative democracy ruled until very late in the piece, which left them with very little in terms of a genuine parliamentary tradition.

This swinging of the pendulum from uprising to dictatorship and then back again is exactly what we are witnessing in Egypt today. The problem with equating collective action, i.e. people power, with greater openness, is that the relationship does not always hold.

Finally, let me address the fallacy that only the Anglo-American form of capitalism works well. Francis Fukuyama is right to point out that this is not the only successful Western model that exists. Scandinavia demonstrated another path, which did not require revolts against oppressive monarchs. Theirs was more along the lines of an enlightened, benevolent monarch based on egalitarian religious rather than secular beliefs.

What I hope to point out through this discussion is that the world that we live in is more complex, more multifaceted than what Robinson tries to portray. While it is easy for him to be parachuted into the Philippines to spread his brand of institutional economics, we don’t necessarily have to buy into his whole message.

I agree that the Philippines needs greater openness and participation in political and the economic life, and that collective action to widen the sphere of participation probably needs to be organised, because elites won’t surrender their privileges willingly, but that is as far as I would go.

We don’t need a whole theory based on a faulty or perhaps selective reading of history to back this up. We have seen how people power can be hijacked or used for narrow political ends. We need to guard ourselves against simplistic arguments that say unseating this corrupt ruler here or that autocrat there is going to bring about nirvana for us. Institution-building is not accomplished by this alone, but through a sustained, deliberate, evolutionary process.

The social innovation of Oportunidades and Bolsa Familia more widely known as conditional cash transfers which have been credited with reducing poverty in Mexico and Brazil were not developed by the World Bank or the IMF.

They were experiments conceived by indigenous policy makers who were thinking ‘outside the box’. The East Asian industrial policies responsible for creating economic prosperity and convergence were pursued against the advice of international economists from the IMF and the West. Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry sought to deceive their Western minders that they were complying when in fact they were doing their own thing.

Similarly if the Philippines were to find its way in the world, it will have to be by taking into account its own unique blend of ideas, capacities and institutions. It won’t be by applying some universal one size fits all formula promoted by a Western economist armed with some statistical regressions, a few case studies and a loose reading of history.

Since the era of Martial Law we have had technocrats sing from the same hymn sheet as their Western counterparts while ironically supporting a system that undermined the very principles they were espousing. We need to be smarter and wiser this time around.

We need to accept that the world is not a binary system, comprised of dummy variables that say you are either inclusive or exclusive, free or unfree, open or closed. We need to admit that we live in a multi-polar world, where things are not as clear cut, as some experts would have us believe, and that many paths lead to development. Ours in fact still needs to be found.

Why all this talk of ‘institutions’ is rubbish

The Philippines is a place where development theories come to die.

This was the case in the 1950s when import substituting industrial policy or ‘picking winners’ was all the rage among development experts. The country was held up as a model of correct development planning and policy. It did not take long for us to prove that there was a flaw in this method which was that infant industries never grow up without a competent and powerful bureaucracy to direct and monitor them.

In the 1960s we flirted with liberalization, but it was a constant battle between the nationalists and internationalists that never seemed to go anywhere. Then in the 1970s the debt fuelled growth bubble came to town. The notion that underdevelopment was caused primarily by a lack of savings or capital would be fixed by borrowing externally. We also decided to emulate our ASEAN neighbors by imposing a more authoritarian model but to no avail.

In the 1980’s the bubble burst, and the country went into a steep recession followed by political upheaval. From the mid-80s we sought to steer away from the cronyism that came with authoritarian rule with varying success. We tried a Western liberal formula of economic stabilization, deregulation and privatization. It seemed to work in Eastern Europe but failed miserably in chaotic Russia. Our own experiment with it tended to emulate the latter.

The 1990s saw a rapid acceleration of trade openess with tarrifs going down faster than our external commitments to the world body, the WTO, required. We began to see more stable growth and saw poverty decline somewhat, but the growth was not fast enough to lift millions out of poverty in contrast to our rapidly developing neighbors in East Asia. These nations adopted a different formula, the BeST consensus (BEST stands for Beijing, Seoul, Taipei) which used a combination of liberalization and government intervention to strengthen their export industries.

In Latin America a resurgence of anti-capitalist regimes in country after country resulted due to the epic failure of neoliberal policies instituted earlier. The Washington elite that had peddled their development theory of open markets began to revise this paradigm. The new Washington Consensus tried to explain its earlier failures by declaring that markets needed the right set of institutions to function properly. Getting institutions right was required for markets to get prices right.

So we went down that road. Since the early 2000’s our business and political leaders have been spouting words like “rule of law”, “good governance” and “property rights” in keeping with the new consensus. It was all talk of course, but despite the fact that we suffered from weak institutions, the economy seemed to grow at a faster clip during the decade just as countries like China and Vietnam seemed to do without adopting Western legal and political institutions.

Where it began

During my undergraduate days at university in the late 80s and early 90s, there was not a single instance that I can recall when an economics professor uttered the word “institution” in class in relation to development. It was only when I entered grad school in the early 2000’s that the topic became vogue.

It became vogue because of “new evidence” that revealed its value. I remember reading “the evidence” found by a group of economists that wherever European explorers had dropped anchor and settled permanent communities on exotic shores, those communities developed into more vibrant economies many decades and centuries later compared to those that did not have that “privilege”.

The assumption made by the authors (who made names for themselves in the field and subsequently advised multilateral institutions like the World Bank) was that where these colonizers settled, they brought with them habits, practices and customs from the old world. These rules or “institutions” persisted even when they departed.

Unfortunately, I do not buy that idea. Let me tell you why:

First of all, there are good habits, and there are bad ones. Take for example Spain and its colonies. Many of the “institutions” exported by the Iberian power have not been supportive of development in the Hispanic world. Many studies have shown that former colonies who inherited the legal system of Spain and France have not progressed as much as those influenced by Anglo-Saxxon common law.

Ok, so you say, well, let us take the case of England. Its former colonies seem to be doing well. Think of the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Even India which despite languishing economically for decades since independence still managed to keep its railway lines functioning throughout the subcontinent following the habits of the Brits who count on their trains running on time. Doesn’t this prove the thesis, you ask.

Well, that’s my second point. In the case of the British Empire, it was not so much that they brought sound rules and practices with them. It was the fact that the Crown invested heavily in its colonies, nearly as much or even more than it had taken from them. You might take the establishment of a port or a walled city as a proxy for institutions, or you might see them for what they really are–public investment.

Lord Clive the baron who helped establish colonial rule over India and ran the East India Company, the world’s first multinational company put it succinctly, that it was “absurd to give men power, and to require them to live in penury.” The effective governance and riches of former British colonies are due to their willingness to devote an appropriate amount to the public purse.

This leads me to my third point, you cannot expect to have rule of law without the requisite investment. It does not occur out of “a re-awakened sense of right and wrong” or by appointing close relatives and bossom buddies to sensitive posts. We can already see where that is heading as dysfunctionalism within the PNoy Palace has claimed its first major scalp.


The current thrust of the Aquino government is to bring about Western styled institutions ‘on the cheap’ by not looking at new revenues to boost its capacity to operationalize them. In its first year, it hopes to achieve better governance while simultaneously shrinking the size and capability of the state. Instead of funding its own development by raising revenue, it relies on donor funding from external agencies and foreign governments.

That is fine if you want to wait for manna from heaven, but as the saying goes ‘heaven helps those that help themselves.’ So as a result of the unsustainability of its current model of development, it is faced with three distinct options:

  1. give up on good governance altogether in the short term, focus on growth, and then return to this down the track when it can afford to do so,
  2. go for good governance full throttle but with the accompanying investment (and by implication, raising taxes), or
  3. take a more pragmatic and targeted approach in moving the good governance agenda forward.

What I mean by the third option of using a targeted approach is that it will have to identify the forms of corruption that are tolerable (benign), and others that are not (malignant) and focus on getting rid of the latter. This is where it gets tricky. For those that take a “purist” moralistic stand on the issue and cannot countenance a return to the inglorious ways of the diminutive one, the choices are even more constrained.

So in answer to those that keep spouting words like “good governance” and “rule of law” on the one hand without factoring in the cost and accepting the need for higher taxes on the other, I say “hogwash: either put up, or shut up.” Institutions aren’t built simply out of an altruistic sense or moral revival. They are built with common sense pragmatism. The kind exhibited by Lord Clive all those years ago.

To use the RH debate as an analogy: you cannot expect people to have less children through abstinence alone; government needs to invest in reproductive health to provide better options. Just as in that debate, this one is about our willingness to produce other options aside from relying on “a few good men.”

So until we get our fiscal priorities right, I am afraid that all this talk of building institutions is just plain rubbish.

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