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10.17 Political Barriers to Economic Growth

Economists have a good idea of the broad requirements that are needed for

economic growth, or rather they at least know what not to do! And yet many

governments continue to choose to maintain what everyone knows to be

disastrous policies and institutions that inhibit or even destroy incentives,

productivity growth and entrepreneurial activity. Such regimes are also characterized

by excessive corruption (Aidt, 2003). Since policies and institutions

seem to be ‘first-order’ determinants of the economic performance of countries,

why don’t governments learn from their mistakes and switch to better

policies? What explains the persistent and repeated adoption and maintenance

of inefficient institutions and proven bad policies (Robinson, 1998)?

This is clearly one of the most important contemporary questions in political

economy. Is there a rational choice explanation that does not have to assume

that dysfunctional political leaders, such as Mobutu in Zaire, are simply mad

or irrational and ideologically blind to reason?

Acemoglu (2003b) and Acemoglu and Robinson (2000a, 2000b, 2000c,

2001, 2003) provide a political perspective on the origin and persistence of

economic backwardness. Their main line of argument runs as follows:

1. the introduction of new technology that will enhance economic efficiency

and economic growth will also influence the distribution of political


2. groups who feel that their political power will be eroded as a result of the

introduction of new technology will deliberately block such change even

if it is to the overall benefit of society;

3. although new technology will increase future output, and hence the

revenue of the politically powerful groups, the incumbent élite also fear

that new technology will enhance the power of competing groups thereby

threatening the future of the élite;

4. therefore there is a trade-off facing any élite between the potential rents

that can be earned from allowing technological progress and the threat to

the élite’s monopoly of political power;

5. serious commitment problems prevent the élite from supporting growthenhancing

technological, institutional and policy changes and then

redistributing a part of the gains to themselves;

6. external threats may shock an élite into accepting change, for example,

the programme of ‘defensive modernization’ adopted in Japan in the late

nineteenth century following the Meiji restoration in 1868.

Using this framework, Acemoglu and Robinson examine the history of

political change and industrialization in the USA, Britain, Germany, Austria-

Hungary (the Hapsburg Empire), and Russia. They argue that where political

élites are subject to competition they are forced to accept change or be

replaced. Where an élite is deeply entrenched they are also likely to accept

change more readily. However, where an élite is insecure they will block

change. In the case of both Russia and Austria-Hungary unconstrained

absolute monarchies resisted the forces of industrialization because they

feared that this would lead to a loss of political power. In contrast, in the

USA, where political competition is guaranteed by the constitution and the

opportunity to extract rents is restricted by the separation of powers, change

was encouraged and promoted. In Britain, where the landed aristocracy that

made up the élite were ‘sufficiently entrenched’, incremental political change

accompanied the Industrial Revolution. A similar story characterizes the

German experience in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Many of the worst cases of development failure have involved countries

that have suffered from the personal rule of ‘kleptocrats’ who use their

political power as a means to control assets and expropriate the wealth of

their citizens on a massive scale, usually for their own (their families’ and

their close supporters’) consumption and glorification. The best-known

kleptocratic regimes include those of Trujillo (Dominican Republic, 1930–61),

the Duvaliers (Haiti, 1957–86), Mobutu (Zaire, 1965–97), Amin (Uganda,

1971–9), the Somozas (Nicaragua, 1936–79) and Marcos (the Philippines,

1965–86). As Acemoglu et al. (2003b) point out, one of the most puzzling

features of kleptocracies is their longevity. Why don’t the oppressed majority

overthrow the kleptocrat? Acemoglu et al. suggest that this longevity is the

result of ‘weakly institutionalised polities’ that allow the kleptocrat to operate

a ‘divide and rule strategy’. The kleptocrat is able to survive by intensifying

the collective action problem, thereby destroying the coalition against him by

bribing the pivotal groups (Bates, 1981, 2001). In turn, the feasibility of a

divide and rule strategy is enhanced if the kleptocrat has easy access to

natural resource rents (oil, diamonds, copper and so on) and foreign aid flows

(see Easterly, 2003; Sala-i-Martin and Subramanian, 2003). Kleptocractic

regimes are also more likely to appear in low-income per capita countries

where bribes are more attractive to pivotal groups.

Where ethnic diversity is a feature of a country, the kleptocrat will use this

as a basis for divide and rule, with certain ethnic groups receiving bribes in

order to buy off their opposition. Mauro (1995) links political instability to

ethno-linguistic fractionalization and the impact that this has on the quality of

institutions. Easterly and Levine (1997) also trace much of sub-Saharan

Africa’s poor economic performance to political instability related to ethnic

diversity (see also Collier, 2001; Alesina et al., 2003).