ABSTRACT

History has often turned the political and economic hierarchy of nations topsy-turvy. The most important of such reversals of fortune occurred between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, which witnessed the dominant nations of the sixteenth century (chiefly the Asian empires) being reduced to poor vassals of the once-negligible West. Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson (AJR) have famously explained this process exclusively in terms of differences in institutions, which in turn are explained in terms of different colonial histories. We argue that the AJR explanation is fatally flawed, besides not being general enough to shed any light on the many other reversals of fortune. Nor does geography alone or technology by itself offer satisfactory explanations. If geography were the key to the success of a country, why didn’t that success last forever? And if technological innovation is the secret, how do we explain the innumerable instances when the innovator was not the major beneficiary of an innovation?