Is evidence-based institutional analysis a possibility?

Chris Blattman writes:

But Acemoglu is right that institutional and political change are more important and the evidence-based crowd have done very little here. Most of that evidence is about anti-corruption or election monitoring or other things that I doubt change politics very much.

Meanwhile all the good political economy research (like Acemoglu’s) has no clear implication for social and political change in the world. There is a big disconnect. These scholars have mostly ignored this gap either because… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too treacherous or hard, or they don’t find it interesting enough, or they are cynical about policy change. I don’t know. Someone explain it to me.

Blattman is spot on.

I think that students of institutions and institutional development have not joined the evidence-based crowd for two main reasons:

  • Politics I: Much of the evidence-based research out there eschews politics, instead focusing on the technical aspects of problems. Works that explicitly deal with political scenarios exist, but are rare. Part of the reason this is the case is that agencies that finance impact evaluations and other kinds of evidence-based policy research agendas have incentives to remain as apolitical as they can (you need host country government permission to do research in the first place …..)
  • Politics II: The other reason is that it is almost impossible to engage in politically relevant big-picture-development research while remaining apolitical. You see this in splits among macroeconomists in the United States (Macro questions make it really hard for researchers to shed off their normative priors). In the same vein, the best placed people to carry out evidence-based studies of institutions and how to change them are often professors in universities in the developing world — the problem is they do not do enough research due to a lack of resources and/or the relevant skill sets; and their own governments often neglect them. Regardless of their nationality, the most visible development economists in universities in the North Atlantic often lack the political connections or the bandwidth to engage in host-country politics; and are thus limited in the extent to which they can effectively study the most vexing policy questions out there.

These reasons are not due to anyone’s fault, just how research is currently financed and structured.

A possible way to get around these problems could be MBA-style case studies of reform programs from across the globe that can then be retooled by Comparativist country specialists — incoming Stanford CDDRL director Frank Fukuyama has very exciting ongoing work on this front.

On a tangentially-related point, I think that works that combine technical brilliance and deep local knowledge (think Bates’ lesser-read books on the Zambian Copperbelt) are about to come in vogue again. It used to be that only a few grad school programs (at least in political science) emphasized technical competence out of econ envy to match the economists. This is getting more commonplace, thereby establishing a new baseline (the data revolution is also helping a great deal by increasing the scope of country-specific studies of macro questions). And once a critical mass is achieved then the comparative advantage will favor those who are both technically competent and can also speak intelligently about how policy dovetails with local politics. The title “country-specialist” will soon no longer be synonymous with “qualitative research”; and more students will be primed to value good qualitative research.

Does democracy cause growth?

William Easterly’s new book, The Tyranny of Experts, argues that positive changes in freedoms are the causes of stable long run growth. But as he admitted to me recently on an Al-Jazeera talk show, the book does not present any rigorous evidence to back the claim, partly because thus far research findings have been mixed on the question of how democracy/autocracy impacts economic growth.

Well, Easterly’s book tour just got a boost thanks to Acemoglu et al. who have a new paper (see their blog post on it here) showing that democracy does indeed cause growth (boosting long run per capita income by as much as 20%):


Reweighted relationship between GDP per capita and democracy (Source: Acemoglu et al., 2014)

Here is the paper’s abstract:

We provide evidence that democracy has a significant and robust positive effect on GDP. Our empirical strategy relies on a dichotomous measure of democracy coded from several sources to reduce measurement error and controls for country fixed effects and the rich dynamics of GDP, which otherwise confound the effect of democracy on economic growth. Our baseline results use a linear model for GDP dynamics estimated using either a standard within estimator or various different Generalized Method of Moments estimators, and show that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20% in the long run. These results are confirmed when we use a semi-parametric propensity score matching estimator to control for GDP dynamics. We also obtain similar results using regional waves of democratizations and reversals to instrument for country democracy. Our results suggest that democracy increases future GDP by encouraging investment, increasing schooling, inducing economic reforms, improving public good provision, and reducing social unrest. We find little support for the view that democracy is a constraint on economic growth for less developed economies [emphasis mine].

The full paper is available here.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson wrote the classic Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. The book is thin on empirics and analytical narratives, but is an amazing formal take on the subject of democratization. To balance Economic Origins you should probably also read Barrington Moore’s magnum opus Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.