Why Nations Fail

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There are books that you can’t put down and there are books you can’t wait to end. This was the latter for me.

The experience started badly in fairness. The opening chapters are a deluge of information and facts that come at you in an endless tirade with barely a pause for breath (literally in the audio version). Dan Woren reads the words legibly enough (if with some odd pronunciations to British ears), but so quickly and with so little emphasis on important points as to make it overwhelming.

After being bamboozled at the start, I found myself often having to skip back and re-listen to sections because I’d tuned out. I’m not sure if that was down to the laconic voice or the unengaging content.

Don’t let the title fool you either, this isn’t about why nations fail. It’s a history lesson in why some countries are rich and others poor in the modern world. It charts everything from the Glorious Revolution in England, to the exploitation of South America by the Spanish, to the rise of China.

Their argument is simple enough: inclusive institutions. By that, they mean political and social institutions where the people have a say, be that laws to insure the state can’t simple take what you have built, or democratically elected officials.

That’s not a reason why nations fail, its a reason why they don’t have long term stability, which generally seems to come along with prosperity, education and free discussion, looking at the examples stated.

I’m reading a similar book, Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion, which delves into far more detail about the reasons nations fail to get out of poverty, and provides much greater insight.

Why Nations Fail is actually a history book, a look back at how various countries navigated their way into the top tier, or at least put themselves on the path towards it.

The book doesn’t attempt to provide answers, other than ‘because they don’t have inclusive institutions.’ It’s an interesting look back at the reasons certain things happened in particular countries, although each of those can only go so deep. It really only serves to highlight how little any of them shared.

If economic history interests you, then worth a look, but if you want to understand why nations fail, look elsewhere.

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Reviewed: 7th December 2014