Daron Acemoglu, How can society build inclusive political institutions?

The rise of Brazil since the 1970s was not engineered by economists of international institutions instructing Brazilian policymakers on how to design better policies or avoid market failures. It was not achieved with injections of foreign aid. It was not the natural outcome of modernization. Rather, it was the consequence of diverse groups of people courageously building inclusive institutions. Eventually these led to more inclusive economic institutions. But the Brazilian transformation, like that of England in the seventeenth century, began with the creation of inclusive political institutions. But how can society build inclusive political institutions?

History, as we have seen, is littered with examples of reform movements that succumbed to the iron law of oligarchy and replaced one set of extractive institutions with even more pernicious ones. We have seen that England in 1688, France in 1789, and Japan during the Meiji Restoration of 1868 started the process of forging inclusive political institutions with a political revolution. But such political revolutions generally create much destruction and hardship, and their success is far from certain. The Bolshevik Revolution advertised its aim as replacing the exploitative economic system of tsarist Russia with a more just and efficient one that would bring freedom and prosperity to millions of Russians. Alas, the outcome was the opposite, and much more repressive and extractive institutions replaced those of the government the Bolsheviks overthrew. The experiences in China, Cuba, and Vietnam were similar. Many non-communist, top-down reforms fared no better. Nasser vowed to build a modern egalitarian society in Egypt, but this led only to Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt regime… Robert Mugabe was viewed by many as a freedom fighter ousting Ian Smith’s racist and highly extractive Rhodesian regime. But Zimbabwe’s institutions became no less extractive, and its economic performance has been even worse than before independence.

What is common among the political revolutions that successfully paved the way for more inclusive institutions and the gradual institutional changes in North America, in England in the nineteenth century, and in Botswana after independence—which also led to significant strengthening of inclusive political institutions—is that they succeeded in empowering a fairly broad cross-section of society.

Pluralism, the cornerstone of inclusive political institutions, requires political power to be widely held in society, and starting from extractive institutions that vest power in a narrow elite, this requires a process of empowerment. This, as we emphasized in chapter 7, is what sets apart the Glorious Revolution from the overthrow of one elite by another. In the case of the Glorious Revolution, the roots of pluralism were in the overthrow of James II by a political revolution led by a broad coalition consisting of merchants, industrialists, the gentry, and even many members of the English aristocracy not allied with the Crown. As we have seen, the Glorious Revolution was facilitated by the prior mobilization and empowerment of a broad coalition, and more important, it in turn led to the further empowerment of an even broader segment of society than what came before —even though clearly this segment was much less broad than the entire society, and England would remain far from a true democracy for more than another two hundred years. The factors leading to the emergence of inclusive institutions in the North American colonies were also similar, as we saw in the first chapter. Once again, the path starting in Virginia, Carolina, Maryland, and Massachusetts and leading up to the Declaration of Independence and to the consolidation of inclusive political institutions in the United States was one of empowerment for increasingly broader segments in society.

The French Revolution, too, is an example of empowerment of a broader segment of society, which rose up against the ancien régime in France and managed to pave the way for a more pluralistic political system. But the French Revolution, especially the interlude of the Terror under Robespierre, a repressive and murderous regime, also illustrates how the process of empowerment is not without its pitfalls. Ultimately, however, Robespierre and his Jacobin cadres were cast aside, and the most important inheritance from the French Revolution became not the guillotine but the far-ranging reforms that the revolution implemented in France and other parts of Europe.

There are many parallels between these historical processes of empowerment and what took place in Brazil starting in the 1970s. Though one root of the Workers’ Party is the trade union movement, right from its early days, leaders such as Lula, along with the many intellectuals and opposition politicians who lent their support to the party, sought to make it into a broad coalition. These impulses began to fuse with local social movements all over the country, as the party took over local governments, encouraging civic participation and causing a sort of revolution in governance throughout the country. In Brazil, in contrast with England in the seventeenth century or France at the turn of the eighteenth century, there was no radical revolution igniting the process of transforming political institutions at one fell swoop. But the process of empowerment that started in the factories of São Bernardo was effective in part because it translated into fundamental political change at the national level—for example, the transitioning out of military rule to democracy.

Facebook Comments

Pages: 1 2