The authors advance the thesis that the primary reason behind a nation's economic failure or success is its political system. For instance, does a given society have more inclusive political and economic institutions that allow meaningful participation from a broader variety of people, including various groups with competing interests? Or is the distribution of power much more limited, with those in power extracting wealth from others and using it largely to stay in power and advance their own narrower interests?
The authors offer a wide variety of examples from all different parts of the world and periods in history. For example, they discuss why the Industrial Revolution took off in a place like Great Britain, while technological progress was slower in other parts of Europe (with progress generally much more limited in Eastern vs. Western Europe). What was it about the changes in Great Britain's society leading up to the late 18th and early 19th century that helped lay the groundwork for the Industrial Revolution, especially given that Britain was poor and underdeveloped for so much of its history? What was the legacy of colonialism in different parts of the world, given the different kinds of political institutions put in place by colonial powers (including the way they used existing institutions in the lands they took over)?
The editing of the book could have been much better. The book often gets repetitive, sometimes with the same point repeated across consecutive paragraphs. Still, it's a thought-provoking and worthwhile read.