Institutions, what institutions?


There are many explanations for why some nations are rich while others are poor. The dominant view, in mainstream (neoclassical) economic circles is that institutions are the central cause of the divide between developed (center) and underdeveloped (periphery). I discussed before (here and here) the role of institutions vis-à-vis geography and culture. I have also noted how the New Institutionalist argument concentrates on the institutions (fundamentally property rights) that act on the supply side of the economy. That is growth arises because property rights provide incentives for productive investment. I also noted (here) that the historical evidence for patents, copyright and other forms of property protection for explaining growth is limited at best. Note that mainstream authors and heterodox authors, at least the majority, tend to agree that institutions rather than geography or culture are central for development.
Also, the table above suggests that cultural and geographical explanations tend to put an emphasis on the supply side, but that is not necessarily the case, and it would be difficult to speculate about what Jared Diamond, for example, thinks about the relative role of supply and demand. Also, it’s worth noticing that while in his early work economic historian David Landes favored a demand-led view (which I tentatively put in the institutional box) he clearly moved to a cultural supply-side interpretation in his later work.

So if you believe most heterodox economists institutions are relevant, but not primarily those associated to the supply side; the ones linked to the demand side, in Keynesian fashion are more important than the mainstream admits. Poor countries that arrive late to the process of capitalist development cannot expand demand without limits since the imports of intermediary and capital goods cause recurrent balance of payments crises. The institutions that allow for the expansion of demand, including those that allow for higher wages to expand consumption and to avoid the external constraints, are and have been central to growth and development. The role of the State in creating and promoting the expansion of domestic markets, in the funding of research and development, and in reducing the barriers to balance of payments constraints, both by guarantying access to external markets (sometimes militarily, like in the Opium Wars) and reducing foreign access to domestic ones was crucial in the process of capitalist development.

In this view, for example, what China did not have that England did, was not lack of secure property rights and the rule of law, but a rising bourgeoisie (capitalists) that had to compete to provide for a growing domestic market that had acquired a new taste (and hence explained expanding demand) for a set of new goods, like cotton goods from India, or china (porcelain) from… well China, as emphasized by economic historian Maxine Berg among others (for the role of consumption in the Industrial Revolution go here). Or simply put, China did not have a capitalist mode of production (for the concept of mode of production and capitalism go here). Again, I argued that Robert Allen’s view according to which high wages and cheap energy forced British producers to innovate to save labor, leading to technological innovation and growth, and the absence of those conditions in China led to stagnation is limited since it presupposes that firms adopt more productive technologies even without growing demand.

The same is true of Latin American economies, which several authors like Engerman Sokoloff suggest fell behind as a result of absence of secure property rights. Latin American economies entered the world economy to produce silver (mining-economy/Amerindian population), sugar (plantation-economy/African-American population) and other commodities, for external markets. They were exploitation colonies, less reliant on the development of domestic markets, typical of settlement colonies in the Northeast United States or of the central countries in Western Europe.

The economies that depend on the production of commodities for world markets and import everything else are more vulnerable to the fluctuations of the price of commodities. Booms in commodity prices lead to growth, albeit very concentrated in the hands of the owners of capital, but they leave very little in terms of infrastructure for future growth. Further, since the economy must import everything to satisfy domestic demand, the economy is dependent on external sources of production, and when the export of commodities does not allow for enough imports, then either demand must be curtailed or the economy must become indebted to be able to continue to consume. A thriving domestic market is central for economic development, and the ability to diversify production to provide for the market is the key to catching up.

Finally, since the economy was based on the mono-production of commodities (and the size of the domestic markets is relatively limited) there were little if any incentives for technological innovation and higher productivity. Note also, that once a country falls behind, and almost all countries were essentially at the same level of income per capita around 1800 (or at least differences were considerably smaller than now), it is very hard to catch up, since the distance to the technological frontier is increasingly steep. It is not the same to copy a textile mill that uses a steam engine than to emulate the development of the Silicon Valley. In this sense, the institutions associated to the colonization period are central, rather than property rights, to explain underdevelopment in Latin America. Capitalism and its institutions both caused growth in the center, and stagnation in the periphery.*

* I discussed here how the industrialization of Britain meant the deindustrialization of India and China.

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