Alternative conceptions of the link between social and political institutions and economic growth are explored theoretically and empirically. A number of plausible hypotheses found in the literature are found to have distinct implications for social steady state, including the possibility of low income steady state institutional traps. Empirical evidence suggests considerable heterogeneity between countries in the nature of the link between institutions and economic activity, throwing doubt on the validity of standard cross-sectional growth equations. The application of cointegration techniques of analysis identifies a number of countries that may prove fruitful as the object of more detailed clinical analysis. Copyright © 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.