Far too much intellectual firepower regarding the global poor these days focuses on the (small) things Westerners can do to help—obsessing about, say, how much money to spend on mosquito-blocking bed nets to fight malaria. The bigger questions—about why some societies prosper and others don't, about how to improve the lot of an entire impoverished class—are left by default largely to uncritical admirers of China's growth. The arrival of "Why Nations Fail" is thus a hugely welcome event, since economists Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson take on the big questions and in doing so present a substantial alternative to the dominant thinking about global poverty.
For Messrs. Acemoglu and Robinson, it is institutions that determine the fate of nations. Success comes, the authors say, when political and economic institutions are "inclusive" and pluralistic, creating incentives for everyone to invest in the future. Nations fail when institutions are "extractive," protecting the political and economic power of only a small elite that takes income from everyone else.
It is common among those who work in development to wish for a technocratic rule of experts unencumbered by politics. Messrs. Acemoglu and Robinson insist that getting the economics right requires getting the politics right. They support their thesis with evidence so comprehensive that it includes the rise and fall of medieval Venice, the colonization of the Americas, and the tribal politics of Botswana at its independence in 1966.