Why do institutions matter?

Remember the Sachin masterclass example from the previous post?

Well, now imagine that he gives this masterclass to me, and to you. Also assume that I am a middle aged man, slightly portly, and not very good at sports (this would, in fact, be a very good assumption on your part). Furthermore, assume that you are young, lithe, and take to any sport naturally (for your sake, I’m hoping this is a very good assumption on my part!)

Who do you think will learn better in that masterclass? Portly, ungainly me, or lithe, athletic you?

Similarly, a spanking new airport in Mumbai, and a spanking new airport in Bangui (the capital city of the Central Africa Republic) won’t have the same impact on both cities. I’ve never been to Bangui, and I certainly mean no disrespect, but it would be a safe bet to assume that law and order, level of corruption, ease of transactions are all better in Mumbai than they are in Bangui. Not perfect, not by a long shot, but better.

Institutions, in this context, is the framework in which economics happens. Markets don’t – cannot – exist in a vacuum. They must be protected by courts, who help in mediating disputes. They must be protected by the police, who help in guaranteeing property rights. There must be a state that creates laws for citizens to abide by. When these things function the way they ideally should, markets thrive, capital is rapidly created, and the economy grows fast.

When these things are broken – when corruption, theft and lawlessness are the norm, markets crumble, capital flees and the economy turns moribund.

The key point is, it isn’t enough for Sachin to give you a masterclass. You must have the body conditioning to learn.

Similarly, it isn’t enough for you to have a low stock of capital – your country must also have the right mix of institutions.

But as with most things in life, that is easier said than done. In some ways, it is the classic chicken and egg problem. A country will have quality institutions only once it gets rich, and we’ve just argued that you can’t get rich without having quality institutions. But that is part of what makes thinking about development so tough.

It is fair to say that both institutions and the accumulation of capital proceed hand in hand – when one grows, so does the other, and vice versa.

Are India’s courts, police force, and laws better today than in the 1950’s? Yes. Have we a higher stock of capital today than in the 1950’s? Yes. Does one cause the other, or is it a self-reinforcing process? Probably the latter – but this much is certain: one can’t happen without the other.

So, to sum up our story so far: growth is important, and growth can’t happen without capital. Accumulating capital is hard, but the good news is that if you have hardly any to begin with, you can grow it quite fast. The bad news, institutions really matter.

Next up: depreciation.

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