There are literally hundreds of books on the principles of economics, rather fewer on particular economies and very few on comparative economic performance. There is one good reason and one bad reason for this relative paucity of comparative material.
The good reason is that it is difficult to establish firm results. This is partly because there are no agreed criteria by which performance should be judged and partly because there is no way of establishing the counterfactual-what would have happened otherwise. Is the performance of Eastern Europe, for example, to be compared with what its performance might have been under capitalism (whatever precisely that may mean) or under 'economic reforms', or under more decentralized planning? The mere posing of these questions illustrates that the particular counterfactual chosen is at one and the same time both important and highly arbitrary. Also, even when chosen, it is incredibly difficult to describe-we simply do not have this degree of knowledge of the social world. Economists have models and carry out simulations, but, at best, these are no more than crutches to our thoughts; and, at worst, such simulations contain so many unrealistic assumptions that they hide more than they reveal. An alternative to the counterfactual is to make a comparison either with early periods of history or with other countries for the same period. This approach, which is used extensively in this book, has the advantage of being more straightforward-we know what we are doing-but, inevitably, many factors change at once and, for all its apparent simplicity, this method is ultimately just as arbitrary.
The bad reason for the lack of comparative work is the fallacious argument that because little can be established nothing can be learned. On the contrary, looking at different countries and at similar, if not identical, policies in different contexts can be a stimulus to our imaginations. It would be stupid to suppose that one country can transplant institutions from another-the circumstances are always subtly different-but looking at one country from the perspective of another may suggest possibilities that would not otherwise have been considered.