Why Nations Fail–A Meditation on #Tahrir Square

Now that I’ve got a little breathing room during my travels, as I approach my last stop before my final destination of Chicago, I have had a chance to crack open a book I have wanted to read for some time.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, is about economic inequality and its origins. The preface references the events of Tahrir Square in Egypt on February 11, 2011 as Hosni Mubarak was thrown out of power.

Why was Egypt mired in poverty, which was the ostensible cause of their discontent? The Egyptians themselves recognized that the underlying cause of their economic problems was a lack of political rights denied them by an ineffective and corrupt state whose power was monopolized by a narrow elite.

The three conventional explanations for Egypt’s poverty are as follows.

1. Geography
This is Jared Diamond’s position in Guns, Germs, and Steel, a form of geographical determinism.

2. Culture
This is the view that Egyptians lack cultural traits or are hampered by religious views that are inconsistent with the work ethic required for economic success. Although the authors do not say outright that this type of explanation is Orientalist in outlook, I have no such compunction against saying so.

3. Policy
Most economic and policy pundits think that the rulers of Egypt were just following bad advice. The unexpressed assumption in this view is that prosperity would follow if only the leaders would listen to them.

The authors’ view is that the three theories taken as conventional wisdom are all wrong, and that the Egyptian people got it right. Not only were they right about Egypt’s rulers, but their insights can be extended throughout the world and throughout history.

It is vital to understand the lesson the Egyptian people have learned, at great personal cost, if we are to face a world in the 21st century that is ruled for the benefit of the ordinary people, and not just for the elite.

This may sound radical to some, but I of a different opinion. Such an economically and politically equal world would be more stable and more capable of handling exogenous shocks like those poses by global warming than a world already internally weakened through inequality. This it is in my opinion the more conservative option. The more radical option would be to let inequality in this country and around the world fester, because that path poses a higher risk of revolution.

So let us heed the voice of the Egyptian people–they given us a warning, for all those that have ears to hear.


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