The Economic Sociology of Capitalism

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Book Review The Economic Sociology of Capitalism Victor Nee and Richard Swedberg (eds), Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, 2005. pp. 457. Comparative Economic Studies (2006) 48, 550–552. doi:10.1057/palgrave.ces.8100141

Comparative economists have gradually concluded that success or failure in transition to democratic capitalism is a matter of institutions, not geography or leadership or outside assistance. However, why do some countries exhibit pro-growth institutions, with little corruption or rent seeking? And how can we explain the relative successes of very different forms of capitalism, such as the USA, the Netherlands, Ireland, or mid-20th century Japan? A group of sociologists, intellectual descendants of Neil Smelser and Robert Merton, present some indirect answers in this volume. Dissatisfied with Douglass North’s initial conception of institutions as disembodied rules (including incentives) which will yield efficient outcomes, they propose a concept of social structure (networks) through which actors pursue their interests, sometimes erroneously, but need not attain an efficient income (p. 56). New institutions are not simply reactions by the state to a changed environment; and old organisations resist change unless and until conflict forces them to adapt. Furthermore, North and others are criticised for emphasising growth alone as the metric of development, since that narrow goal will inevitably favour the power of capitalists. Rather, Amartya Sen’s capability approach – people leading lives ‘they value y and have reason to value’ – requires broad democratic deliberation on optimal social choices. Another paradigm for institutional analysis is recommended by Avner Greif, who wrote an introduction to this book. Greif believes that game theory allows economists to insert considerations of beliefs, information, and interaction into an empirical account, as he has done elsewhere for the Mediterranean traders of the Middle Ages. For Greif institutions are ‘social factors’ which impose themselves on individuals and generate a regularity of behaviour, reinforced by repeated transactions. This compendium contains several applied contributions of special interest to comparative economists. According to Victor Nee, economists who advocated a shock therapy for ex-socialist economies thought they could impose a new set of rules or institutions, but this gambit was ineffectual because it ignored the ‘realities of power and interests in institutional

Book Review

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arrangements (xxxix)’. In the People’s Republic of China, a trial and error process since 1978 has produced a realignment of interests and new organisational forms. In particular, Nee shows in a key chapter, private and village enterprises have been more efficient than for existing state-owned firms operating under new rules. The Company Law of 1993 seemed to establish state capitalist governance – for example, an independent board of directors and shareholder rights – which would supposedly generate high profits