Why Nations Fail : The Sachs Attack

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24:  The U.S. Capitol building stands prior to U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union spee
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24: The U.S. Capitol building stands prior to U.S. President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech on January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. Obama said the focal point his speech is the central mission of our country, and his central focus as president, including 'rebuilding an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded.' (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

This fall, I assigned Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson's Why Nations Fail as part of my international political economy course, and so I've been reading this massive study in preparation for our upcoming seminars on it. I was tickled, then, to notice Jeff Sachs' review of the book in the last issue of Foreign Affairs (Sept/Oct), which gave over generous real estate in its pages for the good doctor's critique. It's scathing stuff. Though it takes him roughly 4,000 words, Sachs' argument about the book boils down to a basic claim -- Why Nations Fail is simple, misleading, and frequently wrong.

While the narrative spun throughout the book "sounds good" and will soothe the minds of Western liberals, Sachs contends, it falls victim to a laundry list of "conceptual shortcomings," conflations, and misinterpretations. "The overarching effect of these analytic shortcomings," writes Sachs, "is that when Acemoglu and Robinson purport to explain why nations fail to grow, they act like doctors trying to confront many different illnesses with only one diagnosis." Then, cribbing from his own writing in The End of Poverty, Sachs suggests that "the key to troubleshooting complex systems is to perform what physicians call a 'differential diagnosis': a determination of what has led to the system failure in a particular place and time."

After spending thousands of words dismissing the simplicity of Why Nations Fail and calling for a more theoretically complex analysis of the situation, Sachs closes with this: "The real story of development over the past two centuries would go something like this." From there he proceeds to tell it like it is, or was, or something, in a few short paragraphs before sticking a fork in the book, rejecting its predictive value, and calling it done. Given the harshness of the critique, one might assume Acemoglu and Robinson would have something to say. But the authors remained silent, until today.

On their blog this morning, Acemoglu and Robinson dished out a detailed response that is thorough and very much worth reading. The pair waste no time dismantling Sachs's claims, point by point. "The Sachs strategy seems to be to throw a lot of mud, hoping that some of it would stick," they note, and very little of it does by the end. To be sure, there are criticisms to be made of Why Nations Fail. Sachs, however, seems incapable of identifying them, which opens the door to some delicious snippets of rejection.

But the overriding flavor of Acemoglu and Robinson's take-down is exasperated reluctance at the prospect of having to engage with Sachs in the first place. "Several people asked us why we haven't responded to Jeffrey Sachs' review of Why Nations Fail in Foreign Affairs. Well the answer was sort of in-between the lines in our response to Arvind Subramanian... we said that thoughtful reviews deserve thoughtful answers. What about not-so-thoughtful ones? Be that as it may. We cave in to pressure." And so it goes.

Acemoglu and Robinson's hesitation is understandable. Whatever one makes of Sachs' early career as the godfather of shock and his subsequent reinvention as the purveyor of a mushier liberalism, it's hard to deny that he has become a cranky combatant (and disappointingly, a frequently disingenuous one, as well) in development debates. Sachs is all too eager to take shots at the ideas of others, but can't tolerate challenges to his own work. In this, he appears more interested in manning the ramparts of sanctimony and self-promotion than responding responsibly to critics. Is it that he's unwilling to get as good as he gives, or unable to give as good as he gets?

Regardless, Acemoglu and Robinson have put the ball back into Sachs' court with their rebuttal. It would be nice to see him return their volley, not with his usual defensiveness and arrogant disregard but, as he loves to say, with data and honest argument. Your move, professor.