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Kopstein and Reilly: Explaining the why of the why

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Kopstein and Reilly. 1999. Explaining the why of the why: A comment on Fish's determinants of economic reform. East European Politics and Societies (fall): 613-24.

Place in Literature

A reply to Fish 1998; the authors posit a cultural explanation for Fish's findings.


Fish's main argument is that states that voted completely new faces into power in 1990 struck a sure course toward economic reform. States that did not allowed the communist-era rent seekers to remain in power, and they remain in a halfway house between communism and liberalism to this day. This is an argument of path dependence, but Fish provides no causal story--WHY did some states change in 1990?. He makes this finding through a multivariate analysis of just about every variable. Fish uses a catchall cultural variable (that includes religion, culture, etc.). Because it is insignificant, he concludes that geographic proximity to liberal states does not matter (since religion should account for it.)

But according to Kopstein and Reilly, proximity to liberal states explains "the why of the why": it explain WHY some states voted new faces into power in 1990 and some did not. They replicate Fish's analysis, but add a "more sophisticated" measure of geographic proximity, and find that it is significant.

Culture Matters

They propose several reasons why proximity might matter. (1) Cultural interaction can communicate liberal ideals; (2) Domestic culture also includes historically communicated values (something Fish partially picked up by controlling for religion); (3) Economic interaction is more intense among more proximate neighbors; (4) Communist states located closer to the West are more heavily influenced by Western power (e.g. to join NATO).

Main conclusion

Fish has prematurely dismissed geographic proximity as an important variable explaining why some post-Communist states liberalized and others did not. Fish's 1990 elections variable, however, remains highly significant in this replication. The authors don't reject Fish's path dependence (temporal) analysis; they simply add to it a proximity (spatial) distinction. They argue that the true explanation is probably spatial-temporal.