On the reversal of fortune, urbanization and Canada

One of the more famous articles of economist Daron Acemoglu is his 2002 article on the reversal of fortunes where he points out that countries colonized by Europeans in 1500 that were relatively rich then are relatively poor now. In the paper, they use urban density as a proxy for economic development at that point in time.

I was not particularly convinced by this because of the issue of ruralization in colonial economies. I am still not convinced in fact. As many scholars interested in American colonial history point out, the country de-urbanized (ruralized) during the colonial era as cities grew at a slower pace than the general population. As such, the share of the US population in rural areas increased. But Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert documented that in 1774, the United States were the richest place in the world (beating England on top of being more egalitarian). 

This is normal. Economies on the frontier had land to labor ratios that were the exact opposite of those in Europe. The opportunity cost of congregating in one area was high given the abundance of land that could be brought under cultivation. This is why the Americas (North America at least) was the Best Poor Man’s Country. As such, areas with low population density are not necessarily poor (even if urbanization is a pretty strong predictor of wealth).

This is where Canada comes in. Today, the country easily fits in the “relatively rich” group. According to the figures 1 and 2 in the work of Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, it would have been in the “relatively poor” group well behind countries in Latin America. However, I recently finished compiling the Canadian GDP figures between 1688 and 1790 which I can now compare with those of Arroyo Abad and Van Zanden for Peru and Mexico. With my Canadian data (see the figure below), we can see that Canada was as poor as Latin America around 1680 (the start date of my data).


So, Canada was a relatively poor country back which was equally poor (or moderately richer) than Latin American countries. Why does that matter to the reversal of fortune story? Well, with the urbanization data, one shows that the non-urbanized of 1500 are the rich of the today. With the GDP data for the 1680s, we see that the more urbanized countries were also poorer than the less urbanized countries.

Now, my argument is limited by the fact that I am using 1680s GDP rather than 1500 GDP. But, one should simply extend the urbanization series to circa 1700 and the issue is resolved.  In any case, this should fuel the skepticism towards the strength of the reversal of fortune argument.


4 thoughts on “On the reversal of fortune, urbanization and Canada

  1. I understand your argument, but if not urbanization rates what do you propose as a proxy for historical wealth in the absence of monetary data? Population growth? Crop yields’ calorie value per capita?

    • Yeah, but in the absence of better data what is a good general measure of wealth if not urbanization? If data doesn’t exist, should we seek to understand the past through other methods?

      • It is not true that some data is better than no data at all. If the data is not suited to the question you’re asking, you’re begging the question

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