In addition to the empirical problems, I was very underwhelmed by the theoretical mechanisms Acemoglu and Robinson outline. I wrote up my complaints in a couple of blog posts:
Autocrats can accelerate growth through cooperation: Institutions as a fundamental cause of long-run growth claims that inclusive societies should, ceteris paribus have greater economic growth than authoritarian ones—in part, because autocrats can’t credibly commit to upholding property rights after productive investment has occurred. If we formalize this argument as a game, we see that the single shot case supports this claim. But once we turn to the (more plausible) repeated game, we see that mutual cooperation is an equilibrium.
Inclusive and extractive societies each have structural advantages: Acemoglu and Robinson claim that extractive societies are at an economic disadvantage because elites will block economic improvements in the name of self-interested stability. But majorities in inclusive societies might also block economic improvements in the name of self-interest. Furthermore, we might expect inclusive societies to be more disadvantaged by problems of collective action.
(These posts are still a bit drafty so apologies for typos, errors, etc.)
These theoretical claims seem quite weak/incomplete.
In practice, autocrats’ time horizons are highly finite, so I don’t think a theoretical mutual-cooperation equilibrium is very relevant. (At minimum, the autocrat will eventually die.)
All your suggestions about oligarchy improving the tyranny of the majority / collective action problems only apply to actions that are in the oligarchy’s interests. You haven’t made any case that the important instances of these problems are in an oligarchy’s interests to solve, and it doesn’t seem likely to me.
Yes, I agree they’re very incomplete—as advertised. I also think the original claims they’re responding to are pretty incomplete.
I agree that time horizons are finite. If you’re taking that as meaning that the defect/defect equilibrium reigns due to backward induction on a fixed number of games, that seems much too strong to me. Both empirically and theoretically, cooperation becomes much more plausible in indefinitely iterated games.
Does the single shot game that Acemoglu and Robinson implicitly describe really seem like a better description of the situation to you? It seems very clear to me that it’s not a good fit. If I had to choose between a single shot game and an iterated game as a model, I’d choose the iterated game every time (and maybe just set the discount rate more aggressively as needed—as the post points out, we can interpret the discount rate as having to do with the probability of deposition).
Maybe the crux here is the average tenure of autocrats and who we’re thinking of when we use the term?
(I don’t say “solve” anywhere in the post so I think the quote marks there are a bit misleading.)
I agree that to come up with something closer to a conclusion, you’d have to do something like analyze the weighted value of each of these structural factors. Even in the absence of such an analysis, I think getting a fuller list of the structural advantages and disadvantages gets us closer to the truth than a one-sided list.
Also, if we accept the claim that Acemoglu and Robinson’s empirical evidence is weak, then the fact that I haven’t presented any evidence on the real-world importance of these theoretical mechanisms becomes a bit less troubling. It means there’s something closer to symmetry in the absence of good evidence bearing on the relative importance of structural advantages and disadvantages in each type of society.
My intuition is that majoritarian tyrannies and collective action problems are huge, pervasive problems in the contemporary world, but I won’t argue for that here. I can pretty quickly come up with several examples where it might be in an autocrat’s self-interest to confront coordination problems and/or majoritarian tyrannies:
Reducing local air pollution would improve an autocrat’s health
Reducing overuse of antibiotics in animal agriculture could reduce their risk of contracting an antibiotic-resistant infection
Allowing/encouraging immigration (for some autocratic country appealing to immigrants) could boost the economy in a way that benefits the autocrat and leads them to overrule the preferences of locals
Obviously, each of these examples is only the briefest sketch and way more work would have to be done to make things conclusive.
Whoops, sorry about the quotes—I was writing quickly and intended them to denote that I was using “solve” in an imprecise way, not attributing the word to you, but that is obviously not how it reads. Edited.