Why Nations Fail

Our congregation’s book club, which meets monthly at the Fairfax Public Library, is reading and discussing the bestselling book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. The authors argue that the primary difference explaining why some nations are prosperous and others are poor is determined by human political and economic institutions rather than other oft-cited factors such as geography, culture, disease, or an abundance of natural resources.

The basic premise is that inclusive political and economic institutions generate sustained growth and prosperity while extractive institutions controlled by small elites ultimately create poverty and political instability. To support their argument, the authors take us on a grand tour through history and look at nations as varied as ancient Mayan city-states, North and South Korea, the Congo, Mexico, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Sometimes small historical differences and critical junctures, like those that caused the end of the feudal system in Western Europe, have led to more inclusive institutions creating greater prosperity and human flourishing.

Our reading group found some merit in all this but agreed that the authors try to explain too much and take their argument a bridge too far. One example the authors use to support their thesis is the city of Nogales, cut in half by US/Mexican border. They claim that the relative prosperity of the half of Nogales in Arizona must be attributed to the inclusive political and economic institutions in the United States. In contrast, the endemic poverty of the half of Nogales in Mexico is attributed to the oligarchical political economy of Mexico. They completely ignore other factors such as the history of unequal US relationships with Mexico or the impact of the massive security wall that the US built on the national border separating the two halves of the city.

Why Nations Fail looks at power, prosperity, and poverty through the lens of the modern nation-state and its claimed monopoly on violence. Alternate forms of community are not considered and other cultural or religious non-state actors are hardly mentioned. Nothing is said about the impact of religious social reformers like Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, and Mohammed or the communities they formed in response to oppressive political and economic systems. Equally not considered are more recent social movements for greater freedom and equality led by people like Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

We can begin to fill in the book’s stark omissions by considering Moses’ action of forming an alternative community among Hebrew slaves in response to the politics of oppression and exploitation in Egypt. Such exploitative political structures are what the authors of Why Nations Fail refer to as “extractive institutions.” Furthermore, biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann calls the religious impetus behind the formation of such an alternative community the “prophetic imagination” (The Prophetic Imagination, 11-27).

We all know the timeless story of the Hebrew slaves’ exodus from Egypt through the leadership of Moses. Brueggemann writes, “The participants in the Exodus found themselves, undoubtedly surprisingly to them, involved in the intentional formation of a new social community to match the vision of God’s freedom” (17). Furthermore, it was the memory of the alternative vision and practice of the Mosaic community that inspired Jesus to proclaim and inaugurate the reign of God in his day. In my next post, I will explore some of the ramifications of Jesus’ proclamation of the reign or rule of God.

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