Daron Acemoglu, Engines Of Prosperity

Inclusive economic institutions create inclusive markets, which not only give people freedom to pursue the vocations in life that best suit their talents but also provide a level playing field that gives them the opportunity to do so. Those who have good ideas will be able to start businesses, workers will tend to go to activities where their productivity is greater, and less efficient firms can be replaced by more efficient ones. Contrast how people choose their occupations under inclusive markets to colonial Peru and Bolivia, where under the mita, many were forced to work in silver and mercury mines, regardless of their skills or whether they wanted to. Inclusive markets are not just free markets. Barbados in the seventeenth century also had markets. But in the same way that it lacked property rights for all but the narrow planter elite, its markets were far from inclusive; markets in slaves were in fact one part of the economic institutions systematically coercing the majority of the population and robbing them of the ability to choose their occupations and how they should utilize their talents. Inclusive economic institutions also pave the way for two other engines of prosperity: technology and education.

Sustained economic growth is almost always accompanied by technological improvements that enable people (labor), land, and existing capital (buildings, existing machines, and so on) to become more productive. Think of our greatgreat- grandparents, just over a century ago, who did not have access to planes or automobiles or most of the drugs and health care we now take for granted, not to mention indoor plumbing, air-conditioning, shopping malls, radio, or motion pictures; let alone information technology, robotics, or computer-controlled machinery. And going back a few more generations, the technological know-how and living standards were even more backward, so much so that we would find it hard to imagine how most people struggled through life. These improvements follow from science and from entrepreneurs such as Thomas Edison, who applied science to create profitable businesses. This process of innovation is made possible by economic institutions that encourage private property, uphold contracts, create a level playing field, and encourage and allow the entry of new businesses that can bring new technologies to life. It should therefore be no surprise that it was U.S. society, not Mexico or Peru, that produced Thomas Edison, and that it was South Korea, not North Korea, that today produces technologically innovative companies such as Samsung and Hyundai.

Intimately linked to technology are the education, skills, competencies, and know-how of the workforce, acquired in schools, at home, and on the job. We are so much more productive than a century ago not just because of better technology embodied in machines but also because of the greater know-how that workers possess. All the technology in the world would be of little use without workers who knew how to operate it. But there is more to skills and competencies than just the ability to run machines. It is the education and skills of the workforce that generate the scientific knowledge upon which our progress is built and that enable the adaptation and adoption of these technologies in diverse lines of business. Though we saw in chapter 1 that many of the innovators of the Industrial Revolution and afterward, like Thomas Edison, were not highly educated, these innovations were much simpler than modern technology.

Today technological change requires education both for the innovator and the worker. And here we see the importance of economic institutions that create a level playing field. The United States could produce, or attract from foreign lands, the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos, and the hundreds of scientists who made fundamental discoveries in information technology, nuclear power, biotech, and other fields upon which these entrepreneurs built their businesses. The supply of talent was there to be harnessed because most teenagers in the United States have access to as much schooling as they wish or are capable of attaining. Now imagine a different society, for example the Congo or Haiti, where a large fraction of the population has no means of attending school, or where, if they manage to go to school, the quality of teaching is lamentable, where teachers do not show up for work, and even if they do, there may not be any books.

The low education level of poor countries is caused by economic institutions that fail to create incentives for parents to educate their children and by political institutions that fail to induce the government to build, finance, and support schools and the wishes of parents and children. The price these nations pay for low education of their population and lack of inclusive markets is high. They fail to mobilize their nascent talent. They have many potential Bill Gateses and perhaps one or two Albert Einsteins who are now working as poor, uneducated farmers, being coerced to do what they don’t want to do or being drafted into the army, because they never had the opportunity to realize their vocation in life.

The ability of economic institutions to harness the potential of inclusive markets, encourage technological innovation, invest in people, and mobilize the talents and skills of a large number of individuals is critical for economic growth. Explaining why so many economic institutions fail to meet these simple objectives is the central theme of this book.


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