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The Roots and Shoots of Economic Development

+ Brandon Fuller

Chris Blattman points to an interesting new literature review. It suggests that “longterm genealogical links across populations play an important role in explaining the transmission of technological and institutional knowledge and the diffusion of economic development.”

According to authors Enrico Spolaore and Romain Wacziarg differences in economic development may partly reflect barriers between human populations. If one population stumbles on an innovation in governance or technology, the costs of imitating and adopting the innovation may be higher for populations that happen to be historically and culturally further from the innovator. Barriers between populations — because of differences in values and norms or because of issues of mistrust, miscommunication, or discrimination — inhibit the diffusion of ideas that would otherwise accelerate human development.

Spolaore and Wacziarg are quick to point out that culture is not a “deterministic straightjacket.” Barriers can be overcome; the diffusion of knowledge takes place vertically within populations, from one generation to the next, but also horizontally, across populations.

The diffusion of modern development to East Asia, which started in Japan and spread to nearby societies, is an example of successfully overcoming long-term barriers. Japan is geographically, historically and genetically distant from the European innovators, but it got the Industrial Revolution relatively early. This is not inconsistent with the existence of historical and cultural barriers across populations, because such barriers operate on average, and it is always possible for some society to develop traits and characteristics that make it closer to the innovator, or to sidestep cultural and historical barriers altogether through historical contingencies.

For development, important questions remain about the contexts in which horizontal transmission occurs despite barriers that might seem insurmountable. The paper, which offers an extensive overview of the literature in this area, is well worth reading in its entirety.

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