The train from Casablanca to Marrakech is packed, I stand at the window and look out at the land; the land is rich but the people are mostly poor (GNI per capita of around $4200 in PPP adjusted terms). If I were in charge would it be different? Would I make a good dictator? My good friend Bryan Caplan says yes! My good friend Tyler Cowen is not so sure. The question is not really about me, of course, the question is about what sorts of constraints are holding back poor countries. Is it constraints about ideas, political/social constraints or even deeper geographic constraints? Could one person at the top make a difference?
The great man theory of history, receives some interesting support in a paper just published in the QJE by Jones and Olken, Do Leaders Matter? National Leadership and Growth Since World War II. Jones and Olken look at changes in economic growth around the time of the natural or accidental deaths of leaders and they find that leaders matter, especially, as one might expect, in dictatorships. A one standard deviation increase in leader quality leads to a huge increase in economic growth, an extra 1.5 percentage points a year.
It’s much easier to ruin a nation than build one, however, so the effect of leader quality on growth says less about how good a dictator I would be than about how bad a dictator were say Mao, Mugabe, and Amin, call it the great evil man theory of history.