David R. Henderson  

Acemoglu and Robinson on Mobutu

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I'm at a conference in San Diego in which the participants are discussing various articles and book chapters on the causes of economic growth. A number of chapters are from Daren Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail, which I posted about here.

There are a number of things about the book to criticize and I criticized some of them. I've heard some more good criticisms at this conference. But I want to highlight a powerful passage:

As an independent polity, Congo experienced almost unbroken economic decline and mounting poverty under the rule of Joseph Mobutu between 1965 and 1997. This decline continued after Mobutu was overthrown by Laurent Kabila. Mobutu created a highly extractive set of institutions. The citizens were impoverished, but Mobutu and the elite surrounding him, known as Les Grosses Legumes (the Big Vegetables), became fabulously wealthy. Mobutu built himself a palace at his birthplace, Gbadolite, in the north of the country, with an airport large enough to land a supersonic Concord[e] jet, a plane he frequently rented from Air France for travel to Europe. In Europe he bought castles and owned large tracts of the Belgian capital of Brussels.

Wouldn't it have been better for Mobutu to set up economic institutions that increased the wealth of the Congolese rather than deepening their poverty? If Mobutu had managed to increase the prosperity of his nation, would he not have been able to appropriate even more money, buy a Concord[e] instead of renting one, have more castles and mansions, possibly a bigger and more powerful army? Unfortunately for the citizens of many countries in the world, the answer is no. Economic institutions that create incentives for economic progress may simultaneously redistribute income and power in a way that a predatory dictator and others with political power may become worse off.



COMMENTS (7 to date)
banshimoon writes:

Mobutu in fact had a Belgian son-in-law who proposed lots of good schemes for creating wealth, like opening up safari resorts. Mobutu however was a bit of an economic illiterate, and was never very interested in creating businesses. I don't know if it was a matter of self-interest or simply a failure to understand how wealth is created. For instance, he drove out the westerners on a whim and had no plans to replace their expertise, which was utterly devestating to the economy, sending it into a North Korea-like famine. This is from In the Steps of Dr. Kurtz, by M. Wong.

Pajser writes:

Concept of dictatorship mix well with market economy, Pinochet is role model, but modern Arab monarchs are not that far away.

ThomasH writes:

Among dictatorships, Pinochet's economic policies were very unusual, permitting the growth of the social forces that eventually overthrew him.

Steve Sailer writes:

How has the Congo been doing in the 17 years since Mobutu?

Thomas Sewell writes:

Steve,

Not the ideal measurement, but the Congo's GDP has more than tripled since 1977, putting it now higher than the previous peak in the late 70s. The usual caveats about the accuracy of 3rd world GDP numbers apply.

A better question would have been how things were back when the Belgians ran the place and how much did most people start missing them at the height of Mobutu's technocratic Commissariats being in charge.

Dan King writes:

Mobutu did keep the country at peace. He used most of his ill-gotten gains to buy the allegiance of various warlords.

Since he's been overthrown, Congo has suffered at least 5,000,000 war casualties.

After reading Michela Wrong's book, I have a hard time accepting Mobutu as an unambiguous villain.

Steve Sailer writes:

Mobutu brilliantly put down the 1978 rebellion by the Katanganese by staging a photo op at the airport with a troop of blowpipe-wielding Pygmies he was supposedly dispatching to fight the rebels. The Katanganese are terrified of Pygmies and their dark magic arts and stealthy ability to creep through the jungle, so the rebels ran away from the fight.

I'm not sure that Daron Acemoglu would have been quite as efficient as Mobutu at keeping the peace in the Congo.

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