Are We Getting Sad and Old?  
Thursday, November 15, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

Obviously the simple answer to this question is yes.

The bigger issue however is whether our defense of the House of Lords in our post here, albeit somewhat strained and understated, means that age has overcome the radicalism of youth and we’ve bought into and been co-opted by the absurd trappings of the British institutionalist status quo. Perhaps Jim is working on his knighthood? (Despite having spent seven years in the UK, Daron wouldn’t qualify for one).

This is certainly a possibility. But (thankfully) there is another. Though it is easy to criticize British (and other) institutions piecemeal, social scientists — and certainly we — don’t yet understand how systems of institutions fit together. It is tempting to argue that this institution is bad, that institution is good, and on the basis of this, one can even advocate changes and reforms.

But we don’t really know how the big picture fits together. So there is a danger in all sorts of reforms.

In defense of our radical credentials we should point out that we showed in joint work with Davide Cantoni and Simon Johnson, “The Consequences of Radical Reform: The French Revolution”, that parts of Europe which were reformed by French armies after the French Revolution grew faster in the 19th century than parts that were not so reformed. In this instance, radical reform worked and that however complex their motivations, French armies moved institutions in places they conquered in a more inclusive direction (though in the process they did also create a lot of upheaval and carnage to be included in the cost column).

The concern that reform — especially radical reform — of a complex set of interacting and dynamically changing institutions might backfire could lead one to sympathize with Edmund Burke who viewed the French Revolution with great trepidation. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke argued that (page 152):

It is with infinite caution that any man should venture upon pulling down an edifice, which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes” Burke (1969)

(But before one gets too carried away with the virtues of Burkean conservatism, it is also worth remembering that Burke was generally opposed to democracy and did not have any such trepidation in taking radical action against France or Ireland).

In any case, a plausible argument can be made that British institutions have managed — despite their many imperfections that one is tempted to point out and despite their total compatibility with repressive and extractive colonialism when this was in the interests of the British elite – to create one of the world’s most durable inclusive and economically successful societies. Compared to places like Colombia, Haiti or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, perhaps it is true that the nexus of British institutions have some flexibility and a resilient core that has facilitated the gradual buildup of inclusive institutions. Perhaps it is also the case that ad hoc reforms, even when motivated by well-intentioned fervor against extractive institutions, may have unintended consequences because they will often start changing parts of institutions that have somehow come to fit together and interrelate in ways that neither we nor social scientists more broadly nor the reformers and the revolutionaries understand. OK call us conservatives!

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (
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