The River’s Edge

The River’s Edge

Reorganizing a bookshelf the other day, I found a book that I was sure I had read a few years ago, but I had no memory of it. Looking it over, I realized I never did read it, so I put it in the queue. For some reason, I read a lot more in the winter than the summer, so I can knock out a book every few days. The book in question is Why Nations Fail, by economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. It was a big seller back in 2012 when it came out. That’s probably why I bought it, but for some reason, I never read it.


the river's edge

The book starts out describing the city of Nogales, which straddles the border between Mexico and the United States. The authors point out that the part of the city on the US side is fairly safe, well organized and reasonably prosperous, for that part of the country. The part of the city on the Mexico side is riddled with corruption, rocket high crime rates, and grinding poverty. They quickly point out that the demographics of both halves are about the same, so the only possible explanation for the difference is the institutions.

What they don’t mention is that the Mexican half of Nogales is attached to Mexico, a land full of Mexicans. The American side is attached to a country not full of Mexicans, at least not yet. Nogales is an hour south of Tuscon, which is more than 50% white. Arizona is now 60% non-Hispanic white and only about 4% black. Further, the Hispanic population is mostly the El Norte variety. In other words, it is good demographics that result in those good institutions. They don’t go there. In fact, they never go there.

The book runs through a bunch of examples of how institutions can make or break a society. They even travel back in time to examine how events like revolutions or wars broke old bad institutions, allowing for new good institutions to flourish. The English Civil War comes up multiple times, to explain how the Industrial Revolution started there first. They spend a considerable amount of time talking about colonialism, to explain how the bad institutions created by the West, forever crippled their former colonies.

Again and again, the authors work backward from present economics, through politics and history to arrive at institutions as the first cause. As a survey of world history, it is very interesting. The authors even accidentally make the point that serendipity has a huge role in history. They call this “critical junctures” and use a bunch of examples where a country’s elite chose poorly. But, they can never ask the question, why did they choose poorly? Instead, they just treat that as the river’s edge, never bothering to go further.

In fact, that’s the reason for the title of this post. The image that kept coming to mind while reading this book is a group of explorers trying to find their way out of a valley. They keep ending up at the edge of a river. Instead of wading over to the other side, they wander around, sure that there must be some other way out. In this case, the river is culture. The authors stop at culture, never wondering what is beyond it, not because they fear what’s on the other side, but because they don’t seem to think there is another side.

That’s what is so weird about this book. Usually, there is at least one section where the author goes to great pains to acknowledge the arguments from biological realism, but vigorously dismiss them as bad-think. That never happens here. Instead, it’s as if the authors have never considered the possibility that Africa is the way it is because it is full of Africans. Instead, they just repeatedly make the point that poor countries have corrupt institutions, while rich countries have more open public institutions.

For instance, the authors write stuff like “World inequality exists because during the 19th and 20th century some nations were able to take advantage of the Industrial Revolution and the technologies and methods of organization that it brought, while others were unable to do so.” The implication of this is that the Industrial Revolution just happened by magic in England, instead of Botswana. The best they can muster is to point out that the English Civil War accelerated the end of feudalism in England, compared to the Continent.

One of the more comical bits is how they try to explain why Western nations did not fall back into despotism, like European colonies after independence. The answer is what they describe as a virtuous cycle, which is a special brand of magic that makes sure only white countries maintain open institutions.The serendipitous magic creates the inclusive institutions and then the magic of virtuous cycles keeps the magic flowing. Of course, there are the vicious cycles that work the opposite, but only on non-white countries.

It is tempting to think that the people on the blank slate side of the river know the truth, but they just prefer to carry on with the blank slate fantasy. In individual cases, that may be true, but a lot of people truly believe that all people are the same everywhere, despite the mountain of evidence to contrary. Instead of reality causing doubts about their beliefs, they do like Acemoglu and Robinson. They invest all of their time and energy looking for the magic cause that explains reality, without contradicting the blank slate.

The result is we have this great divide in the West. I use the image of a river separating two groups of people. On the blank slate side of the river, they will come to water’s edge, but they never look across it, much less contemplate crossing it. On the other side, the biological realism side, the people wait patiently for the others to cross over, shouting words of encouragement to them. Every once in a while, a ferryman reaches the blank slate side and picks up some people and brings them across the river.

We could use more ferrymen.

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