Tuesday
Jul222014

Hard Times for Geographical Determinism

When we began our research with Simon Johnson in 1998 that provided a lot of the insights around which we built Why Nations Fail, we were partly reacting against the ascendancy of what we saw as a highly misleading explanation form, comparative economic development based on geography — both in academia and in policy discussions. In Chapter 2 of our book “Theories that Don’t Work” we explain in detail some of the evidence that is inconsistent with such geographical views.

Thankfully, one rarely hears nowadays at an economics conference that Africa is poor because it is cursed with adverse geography. Yet such views linger on elsewhere in social science, particularly in the literature on state formation.

Scott’s book, for all of its creative flair, is a rather depressing example of this. In Chapter 2 where he talks about “State Space,” the ideal setting to build a state he focuses on flat country suitable for growing rice. The mountains, places where the “friction of terrain” kicks in are not favorable for building states and instead become the refuge of those who flee from the state. This geographical determinism that fills the book is enough to warm the heart of Jeffrey Sachs.

These ideas have of course been applied everywhere. The seminal empirical work on the incidence of civil wars by James Fearon and David Laitin “Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War, emphasized that importance of “rough terrain” for allowing civil wars (presumably the opposite of state formation – state collapse) to happen. The problems of creating a state in Afghanistan, for instance, can hardly be mentioned before the nature of the topography is introduced as the prime reason why it is impossible to build a modern state in the presence of such territorial frictions.

As we write, while the state in Afghanistan has problems, it is actually in a little bit better shape than the one in Iraq. Here’s the thing about Iraq, it is very flat. The collapse of the Iraqi state has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with the politics of state building, or its failure.

What about the Incas on the Andean rough terrain? Perhaps it’s just fortunate for modern archaeologists and tourists that the Incas never realized that they were not supposed to be able to build a state in the mountains, otherwise they might have given up before constructing those 40,000km of roads.

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