Theories of Everything

Paschal Donohoe

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson, Profile Books, 529 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-1846684296
Civilization: The West and the Rest, by Niall Ferguson, Allen Lane, 432 pp, £25, ISBN 978-1846142734
The Origins of Political Order, by Francis Fukuyama, Profile Books, 464 pp, £15.50, ISBN: 978-1846682575
Why the West Rules – for Now, by Ian Morris, Profile Books, 768 pp, £15.50, ISBN: 9781846682087

The ambition of discovering a “Theory of Everything” is a guiding vision of modern physics, seeking to explain every aspect of existence by integrating different branches of science into a unitary framework. The thread linking Newton, Einstein and the Higgs Boson particle is the search for a single concept to understand the nature of reality. Centuries of toil, genius and research have been offered up on the altar of creating an all-embracing, all-explaining theory.

A similar desire is evident in a group of recent works that seek to explain the rise and fall of societies, nations and civilisations. Blazing with ambition, they marshal vast sweeps of history and endeavour to understand why some groups of humans succeed in creating stable societies and why others fail. The most recent of these analyses is Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Peace, an attempt to develop a theory of everything grounded in political economy.

This work is not alone is seeking to provide such a sweeping analysis. Recent publications including Civilization by Niall Ferguson and Why the West Rules ‑ for Now by Ian Morris analyse the dynamism behind the relative economic and social success of the West. Francis Fukuyama complements these frameworks in his first volume of The Origins of Political Order, where he dissects the origins of political institutions and their role in the progress of societies.

These works are united by common themes. They explicitly tackle the vast question of why some groups of humans thrive and others flounder and fail. Second, their analysis is haunted by a sense of the fragility and precariousness of social success. All civilisations believe they will last forever. These works not only document why they evidently do not, but why this failure occurs. Third, the role of human agency is crucial. Societies make choices and the costs and benefits of these choices are unavoidable. There is a gravity that weighs heavily on the arc of progress or decline of a society. Humans can collectively organise themselves to make decisions that impact on their future. However, to use a cliché, the sky will always be full of chickens coming home to roost.

The case study that introduces Why Nations Fail? is the city of Nogales, half of which lies in Arizona and the other half in Sonora, Mexico. The economic and social circumstances of the residents of each part of the city are starkly different. The income of the average household inside Arizona is $30,000, with their Mexican neighbours averaging about one-third of that level. Residents in Sonora face high levels of infant mortality and high crime rates. Their American cousins enjoy high life expectancy with little threat to their safety.

The authors attribute this huge difference to the performance of political institutions in the separate jurisdictions where “different institutions create very disparate incentives for the inhabitants ... and for the entrepreneurs and businesses willing to invest there”. This difference began with the invasion of Mexico by Hernan Cortes in 1519, where the Spanish colonisation strategy was specifically designed to exploit indigenous peoples. This consisted of two stages. The first phase was to capture the local leader, and force communities into submission and obedience. This was followed by the creation of new elites, consisting of colonists who appropriated existing slaves and wealth. This strategy was ruthlessly implemented across the Spanish colonies. Institutions were designed to repress local income and living standards and maximise wealth transfer to the Spanish monarch.

The English began their colonisation of North America at a similar time. Their target of invasion was determined by their role as latecomers: they chose North America as other areas were already occupied. Their efforts also initially focused on the exploitation of settlers and local people. However the failure of the settlements in Jamestown quickly illustrated the difficulties of this approach. Early attempts used martial law and draconian rule but led to starvation, no profits and cannibalism. From 1618 a different strategy was implemented. Settlers were given land and in 1619 they were given a say in the framing of their laws and in local government. A similar strategy, starkly different to the approach in South America, was eventually implemented across many other colonies. An assembly was created in Maryland in 1691, and by the 1720s thirteen colonies had developed assemblies based on a franchise of male property-holders.

This “tale of two constitutions” created a journey of path-dependent change where political institutions “forge the success or failure of nations” by creating environments that respond differently to human incentives. The early creation of an American banking system capable of meeting the needs of commerce is directly linked to the ability of nascent political institutions to resist the pressure of vested interests. By contrast, the incessant instability of the early years of Mexican institutions is linked to the inherent weakness of their political institutions.

This theme is developed into a distinction between extractive and inclusive political institutions. Acemoglu and Robinson’s third chapter analyses the vividly contrasting fortunes of North and South Korea. The average North Korean can expect to live ten years less than his cousins on the southern side of the 38th parallel. By night North Korea is almost completely dark due to the lack of electricity, unlike South Korea, with its full access to modern infrastructure. These differences are recent, having arisen in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The disparity is explained by the centrality of inclusive economic institutions in South Korea and the United States. These “allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish”. This is achieved through secure property rights and the impartial rule of law.

Acemoglu and Robinson argue that this framework is not created in a vacuum. Politics decides how a society will govern itself, who will govern and how competing visions can be peacefully articulated and choices made. Politics predates economics. Institutions are vital in this causal chain. The “silver bullet” in driving sustainable economic growth is the role of inclusive political institutions. They disperse power broadly and subject the wielding of this power to constraints grounded in impartial law. This dispersal of authority is, crucially, anchored by a centralised state.

Extractive political institutions, in contrast, ensure that the fruits of political and economic activity are shared with the few not the many. “Extractive political institutions concentrate power in the hands of a narrow elite and place few constraints on the exercise of this power.” This creates a vicious feedback loop. The role of the elite is to extract resources from the rest of their society. Coercion is vital in maintaining and funding extractive political institutions.

The core argument of this analysis is that the influence on the nature of economic activity of extractive or inclusive political institutions. The assessment of the authors is that extractive political institutions cannot survive alongside inclusive economic institutions, since economic dynamism will destabilise them, while extractive economic institutions cannot be sustained within an inclusive political system as they will be challenged by the dispersal of political and private property rights.

English leadership of the Industrial Revolution and the divergent paths of central and eastern Europe between 1346 and 1800 are all explained by this framework. The English Civil War between 1642 and 1651, followed by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 led to the development of parliamentary institutions and the limitation of the untrammelled powers of the monarch. This was the “foundation for creating a pluralistic society” and “created the world’s first set of inclusive political institutions”. The “silver bullet” of political pluralism had a fundamental impact on the organisation of economic activity. The powers of monopolies were gradually eroded, the rule of law was protected and property rights were enforced.

This directly led to the evolution of the Industrial Revolution, with inventors such as Watt (the steam engine), Trevithick (the steam locomotive) and Arkwright (the spinning frame) all participating in an ecosystem where their innovation could be commercialised and the fruits of their genius amplified and protected by the development of a patent system. As James Watt wrote to his father:

Dear Father, After a series of various and violent Oppositions I have at last got an Act of Parliament vesting the property of my new Fire Engines in me and my Assigns … which I hope will be very beneficial to me, as there is already considerable demand for them.

The authors contrast this development with economic evolution in France, Portugal and eastern Europe. Other regions lacked a coalition of support for the development of pluralist economic institutions capable of stimulating-broad based commercial activity. The aftermath of the French Revolution narrowed differences, with the dilution of feudalism, the weakening of guilds and a diminished role for the clergy in economic life creating “the type of inclusive economic institutions that would then allow industrialization to take root” in areas of French control. By contrast, the persistence of serfdom in eastern Europe and Russia did not provide a fertile political environment for the development of inclusive economic institutions.

The differences between societies and their institutions might be small, but over the “long run” capable of substantially altering their trajectories. This is the difference between vicious and virtuous cycles of development. A virtuous cycle exists where inclusive economic and political institutions reinforce each other through positive feedback in a situation where the broad dispersal of economic benefits means no group has much to gain by the overthrow of centralised power. The rise of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive movement in early twentieth century America, the British reform acts and the repeal of the Corn Act in 1846 are all examples of this dynamic.  By contrast, the difficulties of Sierra Leone and Ethiopia show the opposite as there were no “traditional or historical institutions that could check the power of those who would take control of the state”.

Acemoglu and Robinson provide a broad framework for understanding the relative success of nations. Clear themes emerge from their analysis. Politics matters – its place in the causal chain of prosperity is preeminent and clear. Markets on their own will neither guarantee their own continuation or broader societal prosperity. They rely on inclusive political institutions, which in turn are created by political choices. The authors warn against mistaking bursts of economic growth for a society capable of delivering sustainable development across generations. Autocracies and dictatorships contain the inherent seeds of their decline. Plunder is always too tempting.

But are institutions on their own sufficient? They may be a precondition for success but the nature of the transmission mechanisms between the political architecture of a society and its economic dynamism is vital. Can the developments of the spinning frame in England be fully explained as a consequence of the Glorious Revolution?

Niall Ferguson addresses this question of how “the West” dominated “the Rest” in “Civilization”. As with Robinson and Acemoglu he focuses on the impact of land allocation strategies in North and South America. The pivotal role of institutions is also acknowledged: “North America was better off than South America purely and simply because the British model of widely distributed private property rights and democracy worked better than the Spanish model of concentrated wealth and authoritarianism”.

The sufficiency of institutions as an explanation of economic success is questioned, “[b]ut it is not at all clear why the doctrine of the sovereignty of parliament or the evolution of the common law would have provided Boulton and Watt (pioneers of steam engine development) with stronger incentives than their unsung counterparts on the continent”. To answer this question Ferguson introduces the notion of the “killer applications” of competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Western success is explained by the application of these factors. Inclusive political institutions are one of a set of causal factors, not the decisive element.

A consensus is evident with Why Nations Fail. When Ferguson analyses the importance of the development of a consumer society he writes that “[b]roader representation led to legislation that benefited lower-income groups, free trade in Britain meant cheap bread, and cheap bread plus rising nominal wages thanks to union pressure meant a significant gain in real terms for workers”. The feedback link between political and economic inclusivity is also explicitly acknowledged. This reflects the theory of virtuous/vicious development cycles developed by Robinson and Acemoglu.

This broader framework allows consideration of other factors. Modern science and medicine are too vital to be dismissed as a mere consequence of inclusive political institutions. Medicine is the most remarkable killer application of all, with global average life expectancy progressing from 28.5 years in 1800 to over sixty-six by 2001.

Ferguson argues that the lack of centralised political institutions created a strategic dynamic that propelled Western expansion and competition. The religious wars that dominated European life during the early modern period stimulated innovation from elites as they struggled to maintain their position in an uncertain and volatile environment. “Multi-level competition, between states and within states – even within cities” helps to explain the spread of the mechanical clock across Europe. This “patchwork quilt2 of Europe contrasts starkly with the “vast monochrome blanket” of east Asia.

By contrast, the sheer scale of the Ming dynasties allowed an equilibrium that quickly became static. Innovation was neither encouraged nor harnessed. The written language was designed to facilitate the elite, in contrast to the diverse and accessible European vernaculars ‑ Italian, French, Castilian, Portuguese and English. Competition between European states fuelled overseas expansion, opening up markets and supplies that fuelled Western development. Ferguson concludes that “the political fragmentation that characterised Europe precluded the creation of anything remotely resembling the Chinese Empire … In Europe small was beautiful.”

The change in the “monochrome” region is the concluding theme of Civilization. Ferguson frames the rise of Asia through the prism of his “killer applications”, the Asian adoption of which has shifted global economic and political gravity. The number of new patents granted to Chinese scientists has increased by a multiple of twenty-nine in less than twenty years. Students from Singapore now exceed the international average of academic performance by 29 per cent. Asian culture has internalised the qualities previously associated with Western success:

The Industrial Revolution and the consumer society did not need to be imposed on non Western countries … they adopted both voluntarily, like the Japanese. As for the work ethic, this was spread to the East not by the sword but by the word ...

Ian Morris in Why the West Rules ‑ For Now also explores the relative positions of East and West but takes a sharply different approach from the other frameworks: “Once we recognize that chaps are all much the same, I will argue, all that is left is maps.” This difference becomes even clearer when he seems to dismiss the role of institutions and culture: “It is another altogether to say that culture, values and beliefs were unimportant and to seek the reason why the West rules entirely in brute material forces. Yet that is more or less what I propose to do.” Throughout his book Morris argues that “[i]t is geography that explains why the West rules”.

The analysis of the competition between regions begins with the identification of the Movius Line, over 1.6 million years ago, where differing access to stone for the production of axes led to divergent rates of development. Geography again plays a core role exemplified by the “Hilly Flanks”, an arc of land curving through the Tigris, Euphrates and valleys of Jordan in southwest Asia. This area pioneered a wave of social development due to an enhanced natural environment more conducive to agriculture and cultivation. Through examining how societies respond to these natural environments Morris defines the concept of social development as:

the bundle of technological, subsistence, organizational and cultural accomplishments through which people feed, clothe, house and reproduce themselves, explain the world around them, resolve disputes within their communities, extend their power at the expense of other communities, and defend themselves against others’ attempts to extend power.

The concept of social development is used to explain the rise and fall of different societies and regions. This is because the complexity which is inherent in increased levels of social development overwhelms the systems charged with ordering society. The author emphasises that the “price of growing complexity was growing fragility”. For the first millennium BCE, both Eastern and Western cores were successful in maintaining this balance as they moved from low end states (rulers relying on local elites through kinship and the sharing of plunder) to high end states (a centralised state funded through taxes and levies).

Morris argues that the East opened up a social development lead in the sixth century as their high end centralised states took advantage of greater access to natural resources. By contrast, the West was “split between a Muslim core and a Western periphery”. A combination of the Industrial Revolution and greater access to raw materials and consumers due to overseas conquest allowed the West to catch up and establish a clear lead in social development.

Up to this point, the narrative of Why the West Rules ‑ for Now is consistent with the other works being reviewed. However three important points of difference emerge. First, the other authors agree on an important role for “soft power” at the causal apex of driving success. This analysis disagrees: “The West rules because of geography … Biology and sociology provide universal laws, applying to all humans in all times and place, geography explains differences.” For Morris, institutions and culture do not play the same role in the calculus of success and each great transformation is due to a response to desperate physical circumstances.

Morris also looks to the future and dismisses the importance of which region will be in ascent or descent. In the long run, it simply will not matter. He contends that just as current social conditions were unthinkable to our predecessors so the vista of the future holds unimaginable change for us. We face one of two contrasting fates, “Nightfall” or the “Singularity”. The latter concept is derived from the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil, where technology will host individual minds and merge into a single global consciousness. Biology will be transcended as the mapping of human brains will allow the uploading of individual minds onto computers. This is as unthinkable to us now as the internet would have been to the Victorian pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. The contrasting fate is “Nightfall” (from a 1941 Isaac Asimov short story) where a combination of globalisation and the effects of lethal weapons, diseases or natural disasters leads to the destruction of civilisations. Morris’s outlook is bleak, as he notes that many things need to go right to embrace a “Singularity” but only one big thing needs to go wrong to face “Nightfall”.

A challenge to Morris is the reconciliation of his concept of “social development’ with his contention that the soft power of institutions and culture do not matter. This gap is most clear in the analysis of a crucial question for all of these books: why some countries were so successful in embracing the Industrial Revolution while others failed. Morris refers to this as “The Great Divergence”. He accepts that Europeans were very successful in breaking through previous limits to development, in contrast to the Romans (in the first century) and the Song Chinese (in the eleventh century). The West “took two hundred years to get from Jamestown to James Watt” in contrast to a slower Eastern pace of development. This is attributed to the ability of the West to accelerate technological development. Yet institutions and soft power are essential to an ability to transform opportunity into success, a recognition that would seem to be absent from Morris’s thesis given his contention that “geography explains differences”.

Francis Fukuyama, in his most recent work, The Origins of Political Order, identifies the pivotal importance of institutions but places more focus on understanding their origin and development. His analysis begins with the “tyranny of the cousins” or the ties of kinship that were the most powerful organising forces in early tribal societies. A structure was required to mediate the strength of kinship. The transition to tribal groups, united by worship of a common ancestor, marked the first development of such a structure. The “Coming of the Leviathan”, or the development of state-led societies, was triggered by a wide variety of historical factors, including warfare, participation in a voluntary social contract, population density and unrelenting warfare.

The first example of the successful development of a centralised state is the Qin dynasty in China, founded in 221 BCE. The Qin was successful in consolidating warring states by the creation of the “legalist” state that combined bureaucracy with the rule of law. The collapse of this regime and of its replacement, the Han dynasty, after four hundred years shows that state structures must be accompanied by the rule of law and the vigour of political accountability. Fukuyama argues that these are separate phenomena, a delicately achieved and finely balanced hat-trick of social innovations. This, he argues, is “the miracle of modern politics, since it is not obvious that they can be combined”. Writing with reference to state-building in Europe he observes that “precocious state building in the absence of rule of law and accountability simply means that states can tyrannise their populations more effectively”.

An understanding of the interplay between state development, the rule of law and accountability provides Fukuyama with a framework for understanding the development of political order. He propounds and expands the “bandit” model of political development, originally articulated by the economist Mancur Olson. In this model the world is inhabited by roving warlords moving through communities coercively extracting resources. At some point a single bandit emerges as the strongest through the defeat of his peers, becoming a “stationary bandit”. This ruler understands that by developing a stable economy he can raise more taxes over time through the development of a sustainable economy. This outweighs the short term benefits of plunder. The author argues that, with respect to Europe “the story of political development … is the story of the interaction between these centralising states and the social groups resisting them … Weak absolutist governments arose where the resisting groups were so strongly organised that the central government couldn’t dominate them. And accountable government arose when the state and the resisting groups were better balanced.”

Fukuyama develops the concept of “political decay”, the process “by which societies become less institutionalized”. This can occur in two ways. Institutions can become “repatrimonialised” – as position-holders attempt to pass positions of influence onto family members or friends. Institutions are unable to challenge the elites and social groups from which they are seeking to break free.

The second process of political decay is extreme institutional rigidity. The initial design of political institutions reflects the conditions of the time of their creation. When the environment changes the institutions do not change quickly enough, if at all. This undermines their legitimacy, triggering institutional erosion. The author emphasizes that “[t]he disjunction in rates of change between institutions and external environments then accounts for political decay or deinstitutionalization”. Different factors can explain this, including the role of elites in “capturing” institutions and resisting any change. However Fukuyama argues that due to political decay “there should be no general presumption that political order, once it emerges, will be self-sustaining”.

Common themes appear across all of these works with the design of institutions repeatedly emerging as a key factor in societal success or stagnation. However while institutions matter, they are not a sufficient guarantee of success.

An initial reading of Acemoglu and Robinson would suggest a simple summary of “institutions, institutions, institutions” to explain the stagnation or prosperity of societies. However the authors continually argue that a broader coalition of forces is necessary to prompt the development of institutions and then ensure their continuation and success. Fukuyama agrees: “The ability of societies to innovate institutionally thus depends on whether they can neutralise existing political stakeholders holding vetoes over reform.” Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the interaction between society and political institutions create the momentum for both virtuous and vicious cycles of development. Morris is also alert to how social development can change the impact of geography.

These works offer common examples of how new coalitions are required to support institutions and leaders in their efforts to move to new settlements. The decline in the property and wealth of the landed aristocracy and the rise of a wider coalition fuelled by the gains of manufacturing and industrialisation sustained a programme of radical policy change that included the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the opening of recruitment to the civil service to public examination in 1871 and successive reforming Education Acts from 1870 to 1902. In isolation, parliament or political parties could not have achieved this. To put it crudely, all of these analysts agree that no institution is an island.

Each also emphasises the theme of “Ozymandias”, the poetic illustration by Shelley that all societies are fated to change irrevocably. No civilisation is immune to profound change. Morris argues that this has not only been a frequent occurrence in the past but that it is also a probability for the future. Ferguson notes that “swift collapses have been a leitmotif of this book”: he catalogues how the Inca civilisation collapsed within a decade, the Ming dynasty collapsed in the mid-seventeenth century, the Japanese empire disappeared within three years of Pearl Harbor and the British empire began to dissolve less than a dozen years after Britain’s victory in World War Two. The conclusion is that “civilizations are complex systems that sooner or later succumb to sudden and catastrophic malfunctions”. Fukuyama also notes the intrinsic fragility of social order, but argues that the origins of political decay originate in how institutions respond to changing circumstances. He uses the concept of a “dysfunctional equilibrium”, developed by Mancur Olson to explain the cause of this decline. This is where “elite groups have a stake in existing institutional arrangements and will defend the status quo as long as they continue to remain cohesive. Even when the society as a whole would benefit from an institutional change, organised groups will be able to veto change because for them the net gain is negative. This challenge is so inherent to any developed social arrangement that Fukuyama is not certain that democratic societies can resolve it peacefully.

These works comment on the relationship between East and West, but reach different conclusions regarding the long term outcome and importance of this competition. Ferguson paints a picture of a “well established trend of Western decline” and argues that the growth in both the African and Asian populations makes the “decline of the West a near certainty”. In his world view imitation is not the most sincere kind of flattery, but the most effective method of “catch up”. This has been so effective that the East, through the export of Chinese savings and foreign currency reserves, is now funding Western living standards and consumption. The consequence of this is “Chimerica”, the unity of the American and Chinese economies, based on the symbiotic exchange of currency and consumption. The threats of this development to Chinese national security are already acknowledged by their leaders and, according to Ferguson, they now plan to reduce their dependence on dollar reserve accumulation and “re-establish China as the Middle Kingdom – the dominant tributary state in the Asia Pacific Model”.

Morris agrees that Eastern social development will overtake that of the West but contends that this does not matter. In the battle by civilisation to avoid “Nightfall” or deal with the epochal consequences of “Singularity” the author concludes that “geography will no longer mean very much at all. East and West will be revealed as merely a phase we went through.”

Fukuyama, Acemoglu and Robinson also make different evaluations regarding Eastern prospects. Why Nations Fail contends that extractive political and economic institutions cannot deliver sustained economic growth across generations due to the strength of political elites. Analysing Chinese prospects the authors write that “growth with creative destruction and true innovation will not arrive and the spectacular growth rates in China will slowly evaporate” and that Chinese “growth will run out of steam unless extractive political institutions make way for inclusive institutions”. Fukuyama does not consider modern China in detail, but given his focus on the strategic importance of political accountability, he does write that the Chinese political system “depends on a constant supply of good leaders” and that “under a bad emperor, the unchecked powers vested in the government can lead to disaster. This problem remains key in modern China, where accountability flows only upward and not downward.”

Collectively, these works offer a broad framework for understanding political development. Acemoglu and Robinson pinpoint the strategic value of institutions in influencing the success and failure of societies. Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order analyses the origins of these institutions and provides a more nuanced understanding of the role of accountability and the rule of law in governance. Ferguson, through his concept of “killer applications”, offers specific examples of how institutions directly influence economic and political behaviour. Morris embeds the cumulative impact of institutions and their consequences into the concept of  “social development” but offers a broader view regarding the interaction between geography and political decisions. Important differences do exist, but a broad convergence is evident.

The challenge of creating successful political institutions has been called the problem of “getting to Denmark”. This originates from research by the World Bank that analyses the challenge in moving societies up the development ladder with Denmark as a model of good political and economic institutions.

What lessons can be learned from the collective efforts of these works to create a “theory of everything”?

Choices matter. The efforts of human agency make a tangible difference to the trajectory of decline or ascent for societies. Societies are not always the victims of choices made by others. Examples demonstrates how groups can alter their destiny – for better and for worse – by choices they make in response to often daunting circumstances. Fukuyama demonstrates how the successful efforts by Louis XIV to centralise the French political system made a key difference to France’s modern political culture. Acemoglu and Robinson argue that the American choice of political and economic institutions meant it was best placed to exploit new technologies emerging from Britain during the Industrial Revolution. Ferguson demonstrates that the choices made by Ataturk in the reorientation of Turkey led to the foundation of a secular state. Morris argues that a change in colonisation strategy between the sixteenth and seventeenth century led to “another revolution in the meaning of geography”.

Second, institutional design is a crucial choice. The structure of society and its public institutions may be determined by conscious choice at crucial moments or by the weight of circumstance and choices made by previous generations. Regardless of origin, the design of political institutions permeates every aspect of society. The divergent rate of development between Eastern and Western Europe is offered by all of these authors as proof of this point. Fukuyama writes that “[o]ne of the great puzzles of European history is the very different development of relations between master and bondsman in the two halves of Europe at the beginning of the early modern period”. These authors agree that different choices made in relation to the maintenance of serfdom accelerated Western economic growth relative to their Eastern neighbours. This, in turn, was explained by the different balances of power between aristocracies, cities and coalitions freshly strengthened by the early proceeds of industrialisation.

Third, good political choices are not always a guarantor of success. Decisions by each generation of political and social leaders are crucial but they cannot always mediate the consequences of their predecessors or the impact of physical and social geography. Population densities, climate and the physical location of a society are not susceptible to change in a generation. Morris observes that the right political choices, by altering levels of social development, can mediate the impact of geography. This, however, requires the passing of a period of time that is longer than many societies will tolerate.

Perhaps the foundation for the creation of such patience abides in the continuing theme of collapse that haunts each of these works. Political and social orders are not self-sustaining. Their wells must be replenished by responsible choices by leaders and citizens. Each of these works demonstrates the reward for such endeavours and the gigantic risks implicit in their evasion.

Paschal Donohoe is the Fine Gael TD for Dublin Central, a member of the Dáil Public Accounts Committee and vice chairman of the Joint EU Affairs Committee.