There's not enough empirical data about different types of institutions

[T]here is the question about which features of a given society "matter" in the sense that they actually characterize how the society "works," i.e. that they influence other parameters in a society and determine what happens in it, how people are treated, how rich they are, etc. Insofar as we know anything about this at all, such outcomes generally have little to do with the extremely crude terms generally used to describe political and economic systems: liberal democracy, fascism, capitalism, authoritarianism, dictatorship, oligarchy, and so on.

You would think, since this subject is of such extreme importance for human welfare, and of such intense concern e.g. to all the many people who have strong political opinions, that there would be an academic subject, or a discipline out there somewhere, in which a more rigorous and empirically defensible classification system or taxonomy of institutional configurations could be found, and in which the outcomes of the various configurations so defined were compared in terms of, say, individual autonomy, wealth, life expectancy, adaptability to change or migration, quality of life, social conflict, and so on. But no, there is no such thing! The closest thing we have are the very tentative gropings in development economics, in the theory of economic growth, and in the corresponding parts of economic history, to study the institutional contexts of growth and development, the distributional and welfare consequences of those institutional frameworks, and such things. On the surface the conceptual sophistication of these studies can appear to be quite advanced; economists who engage with these questions employ evolutionary game theory and other dynamic modelling resources, but actually the models, so far at least, have little or no empirical traction. In fact, our empirical knowledge of institutional systems is appallingly thin; as I said, we don’t even have a way of characterizing different systems, though we do know that some past and present societies worked very differently from each other in specifiable ways. But very few people are even working on this stuff, and the effective conceptual sophistication of the study of institutions hasn’t really advanced beyond the third book of Hume’s Treatise (I do agree with Russell Hardin that Hume was way ahead of his time, but that doesn't excuse our abject ignorance two or three centuries later).

You might well think this a scandal, and you would be right.

- Andre Carus, Questions |


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