This fall, I assigned Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail in my graduate International Political Economy course, and so I’ve been reading this massive study in preparation for our upcoming seminars on it. I was tickled, then, to notice Jeff Sachs’s review of the book in the last issue of Foreign Affairs (Sept/Oct), which gave over generous real estate in its pages for the good doctor’s critique. It’s scathing stuff. Though it takes him roughly 4,000 words, Sachs’ argument about the book boils down to a basic claim—Why Nations Fail is simple, misleading, and frequently wrong.
While the narrative spun throughout the book “sounds good” and will soothe the minds of Western liberals, Sachs contends, it falls victim to a laundry list of “conceptual shortcomings,” conflations, and misinterpretations. “The overarching effect of these analytic shortcomings,” writes Sachs, “is that when Acemoglu and Robinson purport to explain why nations fail to grow, they act like doctors trying to confront many different illnesses with only one diagnosis.” Then, cribbing from his own writing in The End of Povery, Sachs suggests that “the key to troubleshooting complex systems is to perform what physicians call a ‘differential diagnosis’: a determination of what has led to the system failure in a particular place and time.”
After spending thousands of words dismissing the simplicity of Why Nations Fail and calling for a more theoretically complex analysis of the situation, Sachs closes with this: “The real story of development over the past two centuries would go something like this.” From there he proceeds to tell it like it is, or was, or something, in a few short paragraphs before sticking a fork in the book, rejecting its predictive value, and calling it done. Given the harshness of the critique, one might assume Acemoglu and Robinson would have something to say. But the authors remained silent, until today.