01 December 2005

People Power: Two academics use game theory to explain why democracy is so hard to achieve

Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson; Cambridge University Press; 540 pages; $35 and £25

IN 1381, a mob of angry Essex peasants revolted against the poll tax, and marched on London, destroying tax registers and records as they went. The Essex men wanted an end to their serfdom and the right to rent land at fourpence an acre. King Richard II, just 14 years old, bowed to their demands and the mob dispersed, although not before invading the Tower of London, trespassing on the royal bedchambers, and killing the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The conflict between mutinous masses and self-preserving elites is the theme of this ambitious, even audacious, book by Daron Acemoglu, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and James Robinson, of Harvard University. Their aim is to figure out when such struggles result in democracy, and when that democracy endures. The peasants' revolt of 1381 was not such a case. Once the uprising had ebbed, the young monarch reneged on his promises to the Essex men, rounded up the surviving ringleaders and had them executed.

As usual, the Economist's book review runs straight to the heart of the matter.

The people rises up to force the sovereign to make some changes. If they don't actually replace the sovereign, he will renege even if he doesn't want to.

It's a dilemma for both parties.

The answer? Democracy. Democracy will make permanent the concessions of the elite.

Read the article. Then buy and read the book. Then lend the book to me.

- Patrick Henry


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