Somewhere in Beijing there must be an incinerator for burning reports from outsiders telling China’s leaders what to do. In February the World Bank, in cooperation with an arm of the Chinese government, issued a report called China 2030 that included this gem: “Where contract disputes arise … the disputants should have access not only to legal recourse but also to a transparent and effective judicial system that imparts justice without fear or favor.” It’s hard to imagine President Hu Jintao slapping his forehead in wonderment upon reading this: “But of course! Why didn’t we think of that? Stop the theft of intellectual property at once!”
As silly as it is, the “ignorance hypothesis”—the assumption that people in power would do right by their citizens if only they knew better—“still rules supreme among most economists and in Western policy-making circles,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard University political scientist James Robinson write in their new book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty. Nations fail, the authors argue, because “those who have power make choices that create poverty. They get it wrong not by mistake or ignorance but on purpose.” For the brutal few, hanging on to power and wealth outweighs all else.