Blogs > Cliopatria > Tim Harford: Review of Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson's Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Economic and Political Origins (Cambridge)

Jan 22, 2006 10:20 am

Tim Harford: Review of Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson's Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Economic and Political Origins (Cambridge)

The birth of British democracy was protracted, as the ruling classes slowly allowed the voting franchise to expand. In 1832 the first reform act increased the electorate from about 8 per cent of the population to 15 per cent; several further reform acts continued the process, and it was completed with near-universal suffrage in 1928. While the concessions were gradual, designed to stave off reform rather than hasten democracy, they all moved in the same direction.

Argentine democracy, by contrast, flickered on and off throughout the 20th century. Something resembling universal male suffrage was introduced in 1916 but was rendered irrelevant by coups in 1930, 1943, 1955, 1966 and 1976.

Non-democracies also differ from each other. Singapore's dictatorship has delivered such riches that popular opposition is half-hearted; whereas South Africa's apartheid regime was tempted into ever-greater acts of repression.

With these four cases, Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Robinson of Harvard begin an ambitious attempt to explain the different paths that democracies and non-democracies can take when viewed in retrospect: steady progress as in Britain; oscillation in Argentina; stable, high- performance dictatorship in Singapore or the repressive apartheid regime. What they produce is an abstract model that will infuriate historians but deserves their attention.

The authors are distinguished economists: Acemoglu recently won the John Bates Clark medal, a decoration rarer than the Nobel prize in economics (it's awarded every two years, and never to multiple recipients). Acemoglu's immediate predecessor was Steven Levitt, co-author of the best-selling book Freakonomics. Anyone expecting Acemoglu to produce something similarly crowd-pleasing will be disappointed. Acemoglu teamed up not with a professional writer but with a long-standing academic collaborator, and produced a book that will be impenetrable to the layman. Nevertheless, I expect Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy to be highly influential.

Acemoglu and Robinson model the struggle for democracy as a piece of game theory - a strategic contest between a small number of players. Social classes are collapsed into individuals: the basic model is a two-player struggle between the "elite" player and the "citizens" player. The players are rational, foresighted, take each other's responses into account and are motivated by economic interest rather than ideology.

Game theory is an ostentatiously spartan tool for analysing mass historical movements. Intra-group conflicts and distinctions between different types of democracy are swept aside.

Acemoglu and Robinson know they are simplifying aggressively: they often use the phrase "Occam's Razor", meaning that by shaving away superficial historical details, they will expose the underlying structure of the emergence of democracy. I think it's worth suspending disbelief to see where the model goes - but historians and political scientists may be less patient with its reductionism....
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