The Skeptics Guide to Institutions - Part 4


The final installment of my series on the empirical institutions literature. Quick summary of the prior posts:

  1. Part 1: cross-country studies of institutions are inherently flawed by lack of identification and ordinal institutional indexes treated as cardinal
  2. Part 2: instrumental variable approaches - settler mortality included - are flawed due to bad data and questions and more identification problems.
  3. Part 3: historical studies show that there is path dependence or a poverty trap, but not that institutions themselves are central to underdevelopment

You have to be very careful with what you conclude from the institutions literature or from my three posts. We are dealing with empirics here, so we are not able to make any definitive statements. There is a null hypothesis, and we either reject or fail to reject that null.

So what is that null hypothesis? For the institutions theory, as with any theory, the correct null hypothesis is that it is wrong. Specifically, the null hypothesis is "institutions do not matter". What does the empirical institutions literature tell me? I cannot reject that null. We do not have sufficient evidence to reject the idea that institutions do not matter.

But failure to reject the null is not the same as accepting the null. Having failed to reject the null, I cannot conclude that institutions do *not* matter. They may matter. All the other reading and thinking I've done on this subject suggests to me that they *do* matter. But the existing empirical evidence is not sufficient to strongly reject the null that they do *not*. As I said in the last post, there may be a working paper out there right now that offers a real definitive rejection of the null.

Given the empirical evidence, then, I'm uncomfortable making broad pronouncements that we have to get institutions "right" or "improve institutions" to generate economic development. We do not have evidence that this would work.

Further, I'm not sure that even if that mythical working paper did appear to solidly reject the null that the right advice would be to "improve institutions". I say this because even the institutions literature tells you that it is impossible to make an exogenous change to institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson did not lay out a theory of what constitutes good institutions, they laid out a theory of why institutions are persistent. Their work shows that being stuck in the bad equilibrium is the result of a skewed distribution of economic power that grants some elite a skewed amount of political power. The elite can't credibly commit to maintaining reforms, and the masses can't credibly commit to preserving the elite's position, so they can't come to an agreement on creating better institutions (whatever those might be).

The implication of the institutions literature is that redistributing wealth towards the masses will lead to economic development (and vice versa, that redistributing it towards the elites will slow economic development). Only then will the elite and masses endogenously negotiate a better arrangement. You don't even have to know precisely what "good institutions" means, as they will figure it out for themselves. The redistribution need not be explicit, but may arise through changes in technology, trade, or population.

Douglass North has the same underlying logic in his work. It was only with changes in the land/labor ratio favoring workers in Europe that old institutions disintegrated (serfdom) and new institutions arose (secure property rights).

A good example is South Korea. In 1950, Korea was one of the poorest places on earth, falling well below many African nations in terms of development. It had also been subject to colonization by Japan from 1910 to 1945. Korea had the same history of exploitive institutions as most African nations.

So why didn't South Korea get stuck in the same trap of bad institutions and under-development as Africa? One answer is that is had a massive redistribution of wealth. In 1945, the richest 3 percent of rural households owned 2/3 of all land, and about 60 percent of rural households had no land. This should have led to bad institutions and persistent underdevelopment. (See Ban, Moon, and Perkins, 1980, if you can find a copy).

But starting in 1948 South Korea enacted wholesale land reform. By 1956, only 7 percent of farming households were tenants, and the rest owned their land. According to the FAO Agricultural Census of 1962, South Korea had *zero* farms larger than 5 hectares. Not a small number, not just a few, but *zero*. Agricultural land in South Korea, probably the primary source of wealth at that point, was distributed with incredible equity across households.

According to North or Acemoglu and Robinson, this redistribution changed the relative power of elites and masses. It would have allowed them to reach a deal on "good institutions", or at least would have made the elite powerless to stop the masses from enacting reforms. South Korea got good institutions in part because it changed the distribution of wealth. [Good institutions for economic growth don't appear to overlap with good institutions for personal freedom, though - South Korea was a dictatorship until 1988.]

The point is that even if we acknowledge that "institutions matter", that does not imply that we can or should propose institutional reforms to generate economic development. It's a mistake to think of ceteris paribus changes to institutions. They are not a thing that we can easily or independently alter. If they were, then they wouldn't be *institutions* in the way that Douglass North uses the term.

If you want to generate economic development, the implication of the institutions literature is that you have to reform the underlying distribution of economic power first. Once you do that institutions will endogenously evolve towards the "good" equilibrium, whatever that may be.

[But the distribution of economic power *is* an institution, you might say. Okay, sure. Define institutions broadly enough and it will become trivially true that institutions matter. Defined broadly enough, institutions are the reason my Diet Coke spilled this morning, because gravity is an "institution governing the interaction of two masses in space".]

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