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  • Equality or Liberty?
  • Jørgen Møller (bio)
Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. Cambridge University Press, 2006. 416 pp.

The daring ambition of this book is to lay bare the causal mechanisms at work just beneath the surface of the "great game" of democratization. In answering basic but far from simple questions about why some countries become democratic and others do not, and about why some countries are able to consolidate democracy while others lose it, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson offer nothing less than a comprehensive reinterpretation of the whole history of regime transformation in the modern world.

From a starting point that owes much (as their book's title suggests) to Barrington Moore, Jr.'s 1966 classic Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, the authors go beyond the focus on contingency and uncertainty that has dominated studies of transition since the 1980s. Rightly lamenting the distaste for bold generalizations bred by this approach, Acemoglu and Robinson return to structural analysis of political change—but with a twist. That twist is formal modeling, which is something of a novelty in the study of regime change, but which they use to good effect in order to make a stringently logical case for their preferred mode of explanation.

The game-theory model employed in the book rests on three assumptions. The first is that individuals have well-defined preferences, and that most individuals prefer more to less income. The second assumption is that politics is intrinsically conflictual, as policy alternatives compete, elites and citizens contend, and outcomes with distinct winners [End Page 169] and losers ensue. The third premise is that political institutions, whether democratic or not, are not only the arenas in which political battles are fought out, but also make de jure distributions of political power that help to shape the outcome of the battles.

Democracy, the authors posit, is a set of institutions that offers de jure political power to the majority. The democratic system rises and falls as a consequence of social battles fought between the elite and the citizens. Democracy favors the citizens since it brings about institutional changes that support political equality in the long as well as the short term. Critically, democracy allows citizens to promote their own economic interests through income redistribution. Nondemocracies, on the other hand, leave de jure political power in the elite's hands, therefore allowing elites to safeguard their own economic interests and decide whether income redistribution should take place at all. Socioeconomic inequality is hence the crux of the matter.

The authors point out that democracy often breaks down, as Latin America's turbulent modern political history demonstrates. They explain that breakdown becomes likely when changes in the de jure distribution of power threaten the economic livelihood of the elites. In such cases, elites will contemplate striking back. Democracy only consolidates when elites have strong reasons not to overthrow it; coups are therefore a particular threat in places where democratic policies have become devices used to raid the coffers of the affluent.

Hewing to their emphasis on structures and general relationships, Acemoglu and Robinson stress that attempts to explain the differences between contemporary processes of regime change and their nineteenth-century forebears must take into account such factors as broad changes in the character of economic life and the globalization of trade and financial streams.

Acemoglu and Robinson should be applauded for the care with which they make their way from micro-level causal mechanisms to macro-level political relationships. Yet their work is not without significant flaws. Even if we accept the authors' claim that political battles are fought between only two groups—itself a thorny issue—we should find it difficult to accept their notion that the battle between the elite and the citizens only concerns economic inequality. By focusing so much on economics, Acemoglu and Robinson disregard the "liberal" version of the democratic tale, which includes the historical struggle for constitutional government and the rule of law. True to the title of the book, they reason that the reaction against the privileges of the few is motivated by economic concerns only—by the desire for "a...


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pp. 169-172
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