Daron Acemoglu, Prosperity needs inclusive economic institutions-The case of South and North Korea

The contrast of South and North Korea, and of the United States and Latin America, illustrates a general principle. Inclusive economic institutions foster economic activity, productivity growth, and economic prosperity. Secure private property rights are central, since only those with such rights will be willing to invest and increase productivity. A businessman who expects his output to be stolen, expropriated, or entirely taxed away will have little incentive to work, let alone any incentive to undertake investments and innovations. But such rights must exist for the majority of people in society.

In 1680 the English government conducted a census of the population of its West Indian colony of Barbados. The census revealed that of the total population on the island of around 60,000, almost 39,000 were African slaves who were the property of the remaining one-third of the population. Indeed, they were mostly the property of the largest 175 sugar planters, who also owned most of the land. These large planters had secure and well-enforced property rights over their land and even over their slaves. If one planter wanted to sell slaves to another, he could do so and expect a court to enforce such a sale or any other contract he wrote. Why? Of the forty judges and justices of the peace on the island, twenty-nine of them were large planters. Also, the eight most senior military officials were all large planters.

Despite well-defined, secure, and enforced property rights and contracts for the island’s elite, Barbados did not have inclusive economic institutions, since two-thirds of the population were slaves with no access to education or economic opportunities, and no ability or incentive to use their talents or skills. Inclusive economic institutions require secure property rights and economic opportunities not just for the elite but for a broad cross-section of society.

Secure property rights, the law, public services, and the freedom to contract and exchange all rely on the state, the institution with the coercive capacity to impose order, prevent theft and fraud, and enforce contracts between private parties. To function well, society also needs other public services: roads and a transport network so that goods can be transported; a public infrastructure so that economic activity can flourish; and some type of basic regulation to prevent fraud and malfeasance. Though many of these public services can be provided by markets and private citizens, the degree of coordination necessary to do so on a large scale often eludes all but a central authority. The state is thus inexorably intertwined with economic institutions, as the enforcer of law and order, private property, and contracts, and often as a key provider of public services. Inclusive economic institutions need and use the state.

The economic institutions of North Korea or of colonial Latin America —the mita, encomienda, or repartimiento described earlier— do not have these properties. Private property is nonexistent in North Korea. In colonial Latin America there was private property for Spaniards, but the property of the indigenous peoples was highly insecure. In neither type of society was the vast mass of people able to make the economic decisions they wanted to; they were subject to mass coercion. In neither type of society was the power of the state used to provide key public services that promoted prosperity.

In North Korea, the state built an education system to inculcate propaganda, but was unable to prevent famine. In colonial Latin America, the state focused on coercing indigenous peoples. In neither type of society was there a level playing field or an unbiased legal system. In North Korea, the legal system is an arm of the ruling Communist Party, and in Latin America it was a tool of discrimination against the mass of people. We call such institutions, which have opposite properties to those we call inclusive, extractive economic institutions—extractive because such institutions are designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society to benefit a different subset.


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