To borrow a term from Tyler Cowen, Mancur Olsen’s The Rise and Decline of Nations is shockingly underrated. Immediately after reading it 10+ years ago I started Googling for secondary material, rebuttals, a follow-up book…anything…and found almost nothing.
I felt like a crazy person. How had I never heard anyone talking or writing about this obvious masterpiece? (I couldn’t even remember why I had a copy.)
To help put this in context, imagine if today you read The Innovator’s Dilemma then went Googling for Clayton Christensen or “Disruption Theory” and turned up little more than an underwhelming Wikipedia page.
Olsen’s thesis is nicely summarized here by Alex Tabarrok, who also points out that “Olson may well have won the Nobel prize had he not died young.” Tragic.
For a much shorter tl;dr we can turn to POTUS #3:
The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is [it’s] natural manure.
I doubt Olsen would have gone that far, nor do I, but institutions inevitably trend toward reactionism and ossification. Given this, sometimes, the best (only?) way to make progress is to tear them down.
This rigidization feels like a fractal process—what happens to nations clearly also manifests in states, cities, and companies. I’ve long felt the main value of a corporate re-organization is in the destruction of the old system more than the creation of a new one. It’s why everyone’s always trying to make a Skunkworks, why start-ups with nary two pennies to rub together can eclipse giants, and why I’m intrigued by Heinlein’s idea from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress—that the only power of one house of congress should be to repeal laws made by the second. I also enjoy the irony of institutionalized deinstitutionalization.