A review of ‘Why Nations Fail’

By Fintan Hogan, King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys

Acemoglu, Daron., and James A. Robinson. Why Nations Fail : The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. London: Profile, 2012.


Hogan, F. (2020) A review of ‘Why Nations Fail’. Routes 1(2): 251–255.


This piece reviews the 2012 book Why Nations Fail, co-authored by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Acemoglu & Robinson, 2012). Their work focuses on the role of institutions in fostering development; specifically economic institutions like secure property rights and political institutions like free and fair elections – structures that commonly develop hand-in-hand. However, throughout the book, the authors write as we would expect geographers to do; frequently contextualising their argument with broader quantitative and qualitative data. Despite an apparent focus on the economic and the political, the social aspects of geography validate their argument throughout.

1. Introduction

Political accountability means the powerful can no longer rob the weak. That’s the basic premise of Why Nations Fail, with a consistent focus on the political and economic rights afforded to people over the last few millennia. The book may more accurately be called ‘Why Nations Succeed’, since the authors draw policy prescriptions from some of the most advanced economies of each era. Reviewing a book which explicitly rejects geography as an explanation for development may appear counter-intuitive for Routes, but on reflection, the premise put forward by Acemoglu and Robinson is crucial to any understanding of development dynamics seen through a geographical lens. Daron Acemoglu is a Professor of Economics at MIT and James Robinson teaches Economics at the University of Chicago – it makes sense then, that they would see economic institutions as uniquely pivotal throughout. While Chapter 2, entitled ‘Theories That Don’t Work’, rejects ‘The Geography Hypothesis’ (p48), one should not be so quick to believe that the discipline has little to learn from their conclusions. On the contrary, geographers are concerned with the flow of information, expansion of trade and progression of inequality, all of which play pivotal roles in the authors’ premise.

Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson offer a concise summary of their premise in the very final line of the book: ‘…durable political reform, will depend, as we have seen in many different instances, on the history of economic and political institutions, on many small differences that matter and on the very contingent path of history’ (p462). To use their own terminology, the argument held throughout the book is that development is only sustained through ‘inclusive economic and political institutions’, supported through a ‘virtuous’ positive feedback cycle – illustrated through charting the Neolithic, Industrial and Technological Revolutions. Through this, they reject ‘extractive political and economic institutions’ which facilitate growth for a short amount of time (catch-up) and profit very few people, stalling ‘creative destruction’ and generating ‘vicious’ cycles. As such, low taxes and strong central government are seen as important characteristics of a nation’s success. An example of how this may develop in practice could be citizen assemblies or unions providing some political accountability – through this, the economic security of workers grows, and development follows. In advancing their argument, the authors use a wealth of historical sources in what becomes a compelling and universal argument.

2. A more nuanced view of geography

In fact, what the authors reject in Chapter 2 is physical geography; the site and situation which people find themselves in. This theory has been termed environmental, or geographical, determinism and has been repopularised by academics like Jared Diamond of Guns, Germs and Steel fame (Diamond, 1999). Prisoners of Geography is another popular text in this vein, emphasising the importance of the physical environment on modern-day geopolitics (Marshall, 2015). These readings are sometimes termed ‘man-land geography’ too, emphasising the interaction between the natural environment and those who rely on it. To a certain extent, Acemoglu & Robinson are correct in their reasoning that broadly similar climates and reliefs can yield vastly different results, and they use colonial and post-colonial Congo to illustrate localised disparities (p58). 

Despite this, they appear to neglect the fact that modern technology still overwhelmingly benefits from a positive location. Geographers from as early as GCSE learn of hydropower and its benefits to Ethiopia, alongside containerisation and how it fails to help landlocked Malawi or mountainous Nepal. Despite this, their argument broadly holds true – on the whole, regions with similar soils, coasts and rainfall can have hugely divergent development pathways. They argue that small changes in institutions are widened into cavernous gaps following ‘critical junctures’ – for example, the decentralised workforce of England led to the Peasants Revolt following the Black Death; this improved working conditions, unlike in much of Eastern Europe (p96). Now you may ask, doesn’t this sound a lot like history? Indeed it does, and this is what continually struck me while reading. The use of the phrase ‘contingent path of history’ to wrap up the entire book shows this clearly and demonstrates how their argument rests on singular people and events, rather than trends or patterns, as indeed does the term ‘critical junctures’.

3. Geography underpins the argument

Well what does Geography offer to this reading? Unquestionably a huge amount. The concept Acemoglu and Robinson revere in particular is participation – using the example of the Glorious Revolution (1688), the authors argue that a broad coalition of interests acts as an effective set of checks and balances within the group, supporting the introduction of equality and representation. What geography shows here is how these groups of people emerge, regardless of individual figures, in a collection of diverse interests. Understanding wealth and its distribution is shared with Economics, but underpinning a geographical perspective is the idea of social capital, inclusivity and community – the authors themselves seem to recognise this with the divergence in the distribution of serfdom across Europe by 1800 (p108). While all European peasants in the early Middle Ages were subjugated to feudalism, by the 19th century the western European poor had strong social cohesion, fuelled by urbanisation, while those in eastern Europe still remained scattered, facing coerced farm labour. Demography and culture are as important as any purely economic factor – geography highlights the importance of place to this institutional drift.

One needs to look no further than the A Level Changing Places topic to understand how, as geographers, we can understand a community, looking beyond their economic or political standing, in a way which ‘the contingent path of history’ often relies on. It is easy to argue that historical events drive development, because every occurrence can be seen as a direct cause. However, the authors’ historical accounts are frequently contextualised by pieces of relevant data, demonstrating the importance of a wider societal understanding which underpins everything that the book has to offer. Understanding development through a geographical perspective offers the sort of coherent wider picture which the authors rely on throughout.

4. Conclusion

In short, geography is crucial to understanding the conditions which allow for the emergence of institutional reform, rather than attributing change just to single political figures or fateful events. In the modern world, this exposes itself through free trade and the exchange of services, individuals and ideas. The very first example in the book used Nogales, USA and Nogales, Mexico (a city divided by a fence) to highlight extreme inequality (p7). In the 21st century, we attribute this to policy attitudes towards loans, welfare, property rights and globalisation. While the authors here employ the catch-all term of ‘institutions’, what the readers of this journal will be able to ascertain is far deeper. As geography students and researchers, we can perceive far more from history than what just individuals or economics can tell us. Without this wider view, historians would fail to really understand the preconditions for development (Rostow, 1959), using circular logic to suggest that developed economies must have experienced ‘good development’ and underdeveloped ones ‘bad’. Incorporating the authors’ ideas into academic studies is likely to give students another insight into development factors, and their global exploration contextualises some key areas of GCSE and A Level content. Geography moves beyond a narrow idea of development, complimenting and supporting the entire premise of the text. I would encourage you to perhaps pick up a copy of this 500-page tome – it’s worth a read.

5. References

Acemoglu, D & Robinson, J.A. (2012) Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, New York: Crown

Diamon, J (1999) Guns, germs and steel: The fates of human societies, New York: WW. Norton & Co.

Marshall, T (2015) Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, London: Elliott & Thompson

Rostow, W (1959) The Stages of Economic Growth, The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol 12, No. 1, pp1-16

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