Review: Why Nations Fail

Reading Time: 3 minutes

By Cai Xiao Han (13A01A)

This week, Raffles Press continues with our very own book review column, in collaboration with MediaCorp’s e-bookstore, In the second of a series of fortnightly installments, Cai Xiaohan takes a look at the book Why Nations Fail.

The title of economists Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson’s latest book Why Nations Fail is provocative enough to stir interest in anyone. What exactly makes a nation successful (or not), and more importantly, will we be able to use this analysis to determine the trajectory of today’s nations? The authors weigh and evaluate a range of factors such as geographical location, climate, personalities and culture, but eventually present the answer: political institutions.

Of course, their argument is buttressed by a veritable wealth of information. Spanning all the continents and delving into examples as far back as medieval Venice, the authors extract historical case studies from a diversity of countries, nations and states to support their simple proposition that political institutions ultimately shape the course of a country’s fate. Furthermore, they assert, only “inclusive” and “pluralistic” institutions are successful as they create incentives for everyone to invest in the future, and institutions that pursue a contrary model—that is, institutions that are ‘extractive’, protecting the political and economic power of only a small elite—will ultimately fail.

The main attraction of this book lies in the fact that the authors are able to present their argument in such a succinct, concise and more importantly, accessible way. A flip through their end-notes reveals that their information sources have employed difficult and esoteric methods of analysis, but the authors have managed to couch these otherwise unintelligible terms in plain English. Of course, some reviewers have criticised the authors for simplifying and over-generalising the issues, given the scholarly nature of the subject matter, but it is clear that the authors are calibrating the book for mass consumption.

But regardless of whether you are an amateur economist or a H3 student preparing your thesis, the greatest achievement of Why Nations Fail is that it has asked, and answered, one of the most intriguing and essential questions of economics of all time. The question of what causes different political and economic systems to rise and fall over time is one that is all the more pertinent in today’s society where the failure of a single economic system can have enormous repercussions for the entire global network.

We certainly should not take Why Nations Fail as the gospel truth (indeed, its authors did not intend it to be). What this book aspires to do is to provide a tiny pinprick of guiding light to search the darkness of the current matrix of global economic and political systems. It allows us to better understand not only the successes and failures of history, but also allows us to project ourselves into the future and determine for ourselves whether or not we, too, will be remembered as successes and failures. Ultimately, as one reviewer put it, Why Nations Fail is a ‘vital work for these times’, and proposes an answer to the uncertainty of the pressing political end economic problems of our world today.

The writer’s e-book was sponsored by Mediacorp Interactive. To purchase the e-book, please visit As part of this collaboration, all RI staff and students are eligible for an exclusive 10% discount from Sept 3 to Sept 16. Simply key in the promo code ( SGMGBL120245RIR) at the checkout by filling in the blank, and click APPLY.

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