The Counterfactual and the Factual

Historians often appear skeptical of counterfactual arguments. E.H. Carr argued that “a historian should never deal in speculation about what did not happen” (Carr, 1961, 127). Michael Oakeshott described counterfactual reasoning as ‘a monstrous incursion of science into the world of history’ (quoted in Ferguson, 1999). More recently, Eric Foner is reported to have found “counterfactuals absurd. A historian’s job is not to speculate about alternative universes …It’s to figure out what happened and why” (cited in Parry, 2016, here).

Such skepticism is striking to the modern economic historian, who since Robert Fogel’s work on the impact of the railroad on American economic growth has been trained to think explicitly in terms of counterfactuals. Far from being the absurdity Foner suggests, counterfactuals represent the gold standard in economic history today. Why? Because they are the sine qua of causal analysis. As David Hume noted, a counterfactual is exactly what we invoke whenever we use the word “cause”: “an object, followed by another, . . . where, if the first object had not been, the second would had never existed” (Hume, 1748, Part II).

Hume’s reasoning can best be understood in the context of a controlled experiment. Suppose a group of randomly selected patients are treated with a new drug while another randomly selected group are assigned a placebo. If the treatment and control groups were ex ante indistinguishable, then the difference between the outcomes for these two groups is the causal effect of the drug. The outcome for the control group provides the relevant counterfactual which enables us to assess the effectiveness of the drug.

The modern revival of economic history is based largely on the skill with which economic historians have been able to use econometric tools to replicate this style of experimental design using observational data. Such techniques enable economic historians to assess such counterfactuals as how much did slavery contribute to Africa’s underdevelopment?, what was the impact of the Peruvian Mita? or the effects of the Dust bowl?

The rejection of the counterfactual approach by historians such as Foner seems to run deep and constitutes a major divide between historians and economic historians; it is therefore well worth exploring its source.


To begin with, let’s set aside some of the reasons why historians have dismissed counterfactuals in the past. We need not, for instance, pay too much attention to the attachment of Marxists (like Carr) and Hegelian idealists (like Oakeshott) to teleological history. Of course, if history represents the unfolding of a dialectical process, then events that did not occur cannot, by definition, constitute the subject of historical analysis. Crude Marxism (and Hegelianism) is, I hope, still out of favor. But another reason why historians are skeptical of the counterfactual seems better grounded. And this is historians’ attachment to the factual.

Consider, Niall Ferguson’s edited volume Virtual History. It provides an excellent defense of counterfactual history. The counterfactuals considered by Ferguson and co, however, are largely in military or diplomatic history: what would have happened had the Nazis’ invaded Britain? etc.

These counterfactuals are a useful way to think through a question. But their power typically depends on reversing a single decision or event, i.e. suppose Hitler doesn’t issue his Stop Order in June 1940 or Edward Grey decides not to defend Belgium neutrality, what then? To be plausible everything else has to be held constant. This means that counterfactuals in diplomatic and military history shed light on the short term consequences of particular events. But the ceteris paribus assumption becomes harder to maintain as we consider events further removed from the initial counterfactual intervention. Thus, we have a reasonable idea of what Nazi rule of Britain in 1940 might have looked like — with the SS hunting down Jews, liberals, and intellectuals and restoring Edward VIII to the throne. But once we consider the outcomes of a Nazi ruled Britain into the 1950s and 1960s, we have much less guidance. Lacking any documentary evidence of the intentions of Britain’s Nazi rulers in the post-war era leaves us in the realm of historical fiction like Robert Harris’ Fatherland or CJ Sansom’s Dominion; there are simply too many degrees of freedom to do conduct historical analysis. Counterfactuals become problematic once we run out of facts to discipline our analysis.

This is the one fact it a valid reason for historians to be skeptical of counterfactuals. The actual historical record has to serve as a constant constraint on historical writing. This goes back to Leopold von Ranke, the scholar responsible for history’s emergence as an academic discipline in the 19th century. Ranke and his followers insisted on rigorous documentation and established the idea that the craft of the historian lay in the discovery, assembly, and analysis of primary sources. Ranke urged historians to focus on what actually happened; simply put, the facts ma’am, just the facts. Many criticisms have been levied at Ranke in the intervening 150 years, and to jaded post-modern eyes this approach no doubt appears hopeless naïve. But we should not dismiss Ranke’s strictures too quickly given what happens when historians abandon them (here and here). What is important here is that the same Rankian strictures that helped form history as an academic discipline, also rule out speculating about things that didn’t happen. They instill in historians a natural skepticism of counterfactual, alternative, history.

Moreover, while military history lends itself naturally to counterfactual analysis, other areas of history such as social or economic history where change is typically more gradual appear less suitable. After all: how is one to assess such complex counterfactuals as the fate of slavery in the US South in the absence of the Civil War?


These are questions which benefit from counterfactual reasoning but which, unlike diplomatic, political or military history, often requires training in the social sciences to answer. For example, take a question that is of interest to historians of capitalism: would slavery have disappeared quickly without the civil war?

From the 1950s to the 1970s, cliometric historians utilized economic theory to try to answer this. They employed economic models to assess the profitably of slavery and to infer the expectations of slave owners in the south (here). The main finding was that, contrary to the suppositions of historians (who at the time were often sympathetic to the southern cause): slavery was extremely profitable in 1860 and slaveholders foresaw the institution lasting indefinitely. In this case, their use of counterfactual reasoning overturned the previous historical orthodoxy.

The issue of the economic importance of slavery to the American economy in the early nineteenth century is also a counterfactual question. Implicitly it asks what would GDP have been in the absence of the slave-produced cotton. Here it is not only economic historians who are making counterfactual arguments. Foner championed Ed Baptist’s book The Half Has Never Been Told. But in it, Baptist argued that almost 50% of GDP in 1836 was due to slavery, itself a counterfactual argument. He is arguing that, in the absence of slavery, the American economy would have been roughly half the size that it was. This claim is certainly false based as it is on double-counting. But the problem with Baptist’s argument is not that he had made a counterfactual claim, but that he conducted counterfactual analysis ineptly and that his estimates are riddled with errors (see here and here).

All of this sheds light on why counterfactuals are so often dismissed by historians. There is an important and deeply shared sense that the counterfactual approach is ahistorical and an unfamiliarity with the techniques involved. A natural lesson from the Baptist affair is that historians should become more familiar with the powerful tools social scientists have to assess counterfactual questions. Taking counterfactuals seriously is a way to make progress on uncovering answers to important historical questions. But there is also a sense in which the historians’ suspicion of counterfactual may be justified.


There remain many questions where counterfactuals are not especially useful. The more complex the event, the harder it is to isolate the relevant counterfactual. Recently Bruno Gonçalves Rosi at Notes on Liberty suggested such a counterfactual: “no Protestant Reformation, no freedom of conscience as we know today”.

But in comparison to what we have considered thus far, this is a tricky counterfactual to assess. Suppose Bruno had said, “no Martin Luther, no freedom of conscience as we know it today”. This would be easier to argue against as one could simply note that absent Luther there probably won’t have been a Reformation starting in 1517, but at some point in the 1520s-1530s, it is likely that someone else would have taken Luther’s place and overthrown the Catholic Church. But taking the entire Reformation as a single treatment and assessing its causal effect is much harder to do.

In particular, we have to assess two separate probabilities: (i) the probability of freedom of conscience emerging in Europe in the absence of the Reformation (P(Freedom of conscience|No Reformation)); and (ii) the probability of freedom of conscience emerging in Europe in the presence of the Reformation (P(Freedom of conscience| Reformation)). For Bruno’s argument to hold we don’t just need P(FC|R) > P (FC|NR), which is eminently plausible. We also need P(FC|NR) to equal zero. This seems implausible.

The problem becomes still more complex once one recognizes that the Protestant Reformation was itself the product of economic, social, political and technological changes taking place in Europe. If our counterfactual analysis takes away the Reformation but leaves in place the factors that helped to give rise to it (urbanization, the printing press, political fragmentation, corruption etc.), then it is unclear what the counterfactual actually tells us. This problem can be illustrated by considering a causal diagram of the sort developed by Judea Perle (2000).

Here we are interested in the effect of D (the Reformation) on Y (freedom of conscience). The problem is that if we observe a correlation between D and Y, we don’t know if it is causal. This is because of the presence of A, B, and F. Perhaps these can be controlled for. But there is also C. We can think of C as the printing press.

The printing press has a large role in the success of the Reformation (Rubin 2014). But it also stimulated urbanization and economic growth and plausibly had an independent role in stimulating the developments that eventually gave rise to modern liberalism, rule of law, and freedom of conscience. The endogeneity problem here seems intractable.

Absent some way to control for all these potential confounders, we are unable to estimate the causal effects of the Protestant Reformation on something like freedom of conscience. In contrast to the purely economic questions considered above, we don’t have a good theoretical understanding of the emergence of religious freedom. Counterfactual reasoning only gets us so far.

Historians need economic history (and this means economic theory and econometrics). And economists need historians. They need historians to make sense of the complexity of the world and because of their expertise and skill in handling evidence.

Some Thoughts on State Capacity

State capacity is an important topic and the subject of much recent attention in both development economics and economic history. Together with Noel Johnson I’ve recently written a survey article on the topic (here). At the same time, many libertarians and classical liberals are uncomfortable with the concept (see here and here). I think these criticisms are useful but misplaced. Addressing them will hopefully move the debate forward in a useful fashion.

Here I will just focus one issue. This is the argument recently made by Alex Salter that state capacity is a black box. Alex notes correctly that we have a detailed and convincing theory for how markets can lead to economic growth (by directing resources to their most efficient use). In contrast, according to Alex:

“State capacity, by itself, addresses neither the information issue nor the incentive issue. While governance institutions obviously began centralizing at the beginning of the modern era, this is just a morphological description of what happened to institutions. On its own, that’s insufficient as a causal explanation”.

I think Alex and other critics are on the wrong track here. State capacity is not alternative explanation for economic growth to that offered by markets. The relevant question is what impeded market development before, say, 1700, and what enabled the growth of markets after around 1700. The evidence provided by a body of research suggests that prior to 1700 market development was impeded by political fragmentation both within and between states. Critics of the state capacity argument should engage with this literature.

A second claim Alex makes is that we lack a theory for why the more centralized states that arose after 1700 were less rent-seeking and predatory than their weaker and more internally fragmented predecessors. But in fact we have a fairly good understanding of many of the mechanisms responsible for the demise of the more costly forms of recent seeking that characterized medieval and early modern Europe. This understanding is based on the work of James Buchanan and Mancur Olson.

The basic argument is this. Medieval and early modern states were mostly devices for rent-extraction and rent-seeking. But this rent-extraction and rent-seeking was largely decentralized. They collected taxes through a variety of costly and inefficient means (such as selling monopolies). They then spent the tax revenue on costly wars.

Decentralized rent-extraction was costly and inefficient. For example, it is well known that weights and measures varied from place to place in preindustrial Europe. What is less well known is that there were institutional reasons for this, as each local lord wanted to use his own measures in order to extract more surplus from the peasants who were forced to grind their grain using his mill. Local cities similarly used their own systems of weights and measures in order to extract surplus from traveling merchants. This benefited each local lord and city authority but imposed a large deadweight loss on the economy at large.

The logic of internal tariffs was similar. Each local lord or city would choose their internal tariffs in order to maximize their own income. But we know from elementary microeconomics that in this setting each local authority will set these tariffs “too high” because they will not take into account the effect of their tax rate on the tax revenue of their neighbors who also set their tariffs too high.

When early modern European rulers invested in state capacity, they sought to abolish or restrict such internal tariffs, to impose uniform taxes, and to standardize weights and measures. This resulted in a reduction in deadweight loss as when the king set the tax rate he considered the tax revenue he gets from his entire realm, and internalized the negative externality mentioned above.  The reasoning is identical to that which states that a single combined monopolist may be preferable to an up-stream and down-stream monopolist. When it comes to a public bad (like rent-seeking) a monopolist is preferable to competition.

Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe

My full review of Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth is forthcoming in the Independent Review. Unfortunately, it won’t be out until the Winter 2017 issue is released so here is a preview. Specifically, I want to discuss one of the main themes of the book and my review: the role of political decentralization in the onset of economic growth in western Europe.

This argument goes back to Montesquieu and David Hume. It is discussed in detail in my paper “Unified China; Divided Europe’’ (forthcoming in the International Economic Review and available here). But though many writers have argued that fragmentation was key to Europe’s eventual rise, these arguments are often underspecified, fail to explain the relevant mechanisms, or do not discuss counter-examples. Mokyr, however, has an original take on the argument which is worth emphasizing and considering in detail.

Mokyr focuses on how the competitive nature of the European state system provided dynamic incentives for economic growth and development. This argument is different from the classic one, according to which political competition led to fiscal competition, lower taxes, and better protection of property rights (see here). That argument rests on a faulty analogy between competition in the marketplace and competition between states.  The main problem it encounters is that while firms can only attract customers by offering lower prices (lower taxes) or better products (better public goods), states can compete with violence. Far from being competitive, low tax states like the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth were crushed in the high-pressure competitive environment that characterized early modern Europe. The notion that competition produced low taxes is also falsified by the well-established finding that taxes were much higher in early modern Europe than elsewhere in the world.

It is also not the case that political fragmentation is always and everywhere good for economic development. India was fragmented for much of its history. Medieval Ireland was fragmented into countless chiefdom prior to the English conquest. Perhaps we can distinguish between low-intensity but fragmented state systems which tended not to generate competitive pressure such as medieval Ireland or South-East Asia and high-intensity fragmented state systems such as early modern Europe or warring states China. But even then it is not clear that a highly competitive and fragmented state system will be good for growth. In general, political fragmentation raised barriers to trade and impeded market integration. Moreover a competitive state system means more conflict or more resources spent deterring conflict. For this reason political fragmentation tends to result in wasteful military spending. It can be easily shown, for instance, that a much higher proportion of the population spent their lives in the economically wasteful activity of soldiering in fragmented medieval and early modern Europe than did in either the Roman empire or imperial China (see Ko, Koyama, Sng, 2018).

Innovation and Decentralization

What then is Mokyr’s basis for claiming that political fragmentation was crucial for the onset of modern growth? Essentially, for Mokyr the upside of Europe’s political divisions was dynamic. It was the conjunction of political fragmentation with a thriving trans-European intellectual culture that was crucial for the eventual transition to modern growth. The political divisions of Europe meant that innovative and heretical thinkers had an avenue of escape from oppressive political authorities. This escape valve prevented the ideas and innovations of the Renaissance and Reformation from being crushed after the Counter-Reformation became ascendant in southern Europe after 1600. Giordano Bruno was burned in Rome. But in general heretical and subversive thinkers could escape the Inquisition by judiciously moving across borders.

Political fragmentation enabled thinkers from Descartes and Bayle to Voltaire and Rousseau to flee France. It also allowed Hobbes to escape to Paris during the English Civil War and Locke to wait out the anger of Charles II in the Netherlands. Also important was the fact that the political divisions of Europe also meant that no writer or scientist was dependent on the favor of a single, all powerful monarch. A host of different patrons were available and willing to compete to attract the best talents. Christina of Sweden sponsored Descartes. Charles II hired Hobbes as a mathematics teacher for a while. Leibniz was the adornment of the House of Hanover.

The other important point that Mokyr’s stresses is Europe’s cultural unity and interconnectedness. As I conclude in my review, Mokyr’s argument is that

“the cultural unity of Europe meant that the inventors, innovators, and tinkers in England and the Dutch Republic could build on the advances of the European-wide Scientific Revolution. Europe’s interconnectivity due to the Republic of Letters helped to give rise to a continent-wide Enlightenment Culture. In the British Isles, this met a response from apprentice trained and skilled craftsmen able to tinker with and improve existing technologies.  In contrast, political fragmentation in the medieval Middle East or pre-modern India does not seem to have promoted innovation, whereas the political unity of Qing China produced an elite culture that was conservative and that stifled free thinking”.

It is this greater network connectivity that needs particular emphasize and should be the focus of future research into the intellectual origins of growth in western Europe. At present we can only speculate on its origins. The printing press certainly deserves mention as it was the key innovation that helped the diffusion of ideas. Mokyr also points to the postal system as a crucial institutional development that enabled rapid communication across political boundaries. Other factors include the development of a nascent European identity and what Chris Wickham calls, in his recent book on medieval Europe, “the late medieval public sphere” (Wickham, 2016). These developments were important but understudied complements to the fragmented nature of the European state system so frequently highlighted in the literature.

The Return of Cyclical Theories of History

“People and states oscillate between peace and war, freedom and slavery, order and disorder. They tire easily. Even happiness soon grows wearisome. No sooner do they begin to enjoy the benefits of wise and just government than they demand more wisdom and a different kind of justice. Factions spring up. Everyone is on the lookout for new privileges. The equilibrium that was so hard to strike crumbles. Wild hopes are embraced. The system collapses. Everything has to be built up anew on the ruins of the past”.

Jean, D’Ormesson, The Glory of the Empire

This, from D’Ormesson’s excellent 1971 fictional history The Glory of the Empire, could stand in for many such statements from thinkers who have held to a cyclical view of political development: Polybius, Machiavelli, Vico, Spengler, and Arthur Schlesinger. Now, after a period of eclipse, cyclical histories are back in fashion. Tyler Cowen in his excellent new book The Complacent Class heralds their return:

The biggest story of the last fifteen years, both nationally and globally, is the growing likelihood that a cyclical model of history will be a better predictor than a model of ongoing progress. (Cowen, 2017, p. 200)

The leading modern day cyclical theorist is undoubtedly Peter Turchin. For my money Turchin’s best book is Secular Cycles (co-authored with  Sergey A. Nefedov). Their innovation (building on an argument made by my GMU colleague Jack Goldstone in his 1991 book Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World) is to take the Malthusian model of economic cycles and add to it a model of elite competition.

Tuchin and Nefedov show that periods of demographic expansion are often associated with the growth of elite incomes and inequality (as population growth causes rents to rise and wages to fall). More elites competing over the surplus, however, puts fiscal pressure on the surplus-extraction machine that we call the state. Elite overproduction thus brings about a political crisis. Secular Cycles applied this model to medieval and early modern England and France, Russia and ancient Rome. Turchin’s most recent book applies it to the United States.

Another recent cyclical account that has caught my attention is that of Bas van Bavel. His recent book The Invisible Hand? (OUP 2016) has been favorably reviewed by Branko Milanovic (strangely Bavel doesn’t cite Turchin). I quote in full from Branko’s review:

Van Bavel’s key idea is as follows. In societies where non-market constraints are dominant (say, in feudal societies), liberating factor markets is a truly revolutionary change. Ability of peasants to own some land or to lease it, of workers to work for wages rather than to be subjected to various types of corvées, or of the merchants to borrow at a more or less competitive market rather than to depend on usurious rates, is liberating at an individual level (gives person much greater freedom), secures property, and unleashes the forces of economic growth. The pace of activity quickens, growth accelerates (true, historically, from close to zero to some small number like 1% per year) and even inequality, economic and above all social, decreases . . .

But the process, Bavel argues, contains the seeds of its destruction. Gradually factor markets cover more and more of the population: Bavel is excellent in providing numerical estimates on, for example, the percentage of wage-earners in Lombardy in the 14th century or showing that in Low Countries wage labor was, because of guilds, less prevalent in urban than in rural areas. One factor market, though, that of capital and finance, gradually begins to dominate. Private and public debt become most attractive investments, big fortunes are made in finance, and those who originally asked for the level playing field and removal of feudal-like constraints, now use their wealth to conquer the political power and impose a serrata, thus making the rules destined to keep them forever on the top. What started as an exercise in political and economic freedom begins to look like an exercise in cementing the acquired power, politically and economically. The economic essor is gone, the economy begins to stagnate and, as happened to Iraq, Northern Italy and Low Countries, is overtaken by the competitors.

This is a great summary of the main idea of the book.  And the idea of endogenous economic cycles is an intriguing one.

But my impression of Bavel’s argument is less favorable. I am more inclined to the views expressed in this more critical review of the book by Peer Vries who lauds the ambition of the project but wishes that the execution was better. Like Vries I think there are issues with defining and measuring the growth of factor markets. I think that purely internalist stories of rise and decline might make sense for some preindustrial societies but are much less compelling for the more interconnected early modern world let alone for the post-1800 period. All in all, the book lacks a clearly laid out theoretical framework and suffers for it.

This said, cyclical patterns in history and in particular what one might call political cycles should get more attention. We should not be looking to date Kondratiev waves or other such pseudo-scientific phenomenon, but we should seek to build models and explanations that explain the pattern of ups and downs, growth efflorescence followed by crises and collapses, that characterized preindustrial history.

Geopolitics and Asia’s Little Divergence: State Building in China and Japan After 1850

Crossposted at the Medium

Why did Japan successfully modernize in the 19th century while China failed to do so? Both China and Japan came under increasing threat from the Western powers after 1850. In response, Japan successfully undertook a program of state building and modernization; in China, however, attempts to modernize proved unsuccessful and the power of the central state was fatally weakened. The failure to build a modern state led to China’s so-called lost century while Japan’s success enabled it to become the first non-western country to industrialize. In a paper with Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University) and Tuan-Hwee Sng (NUS), we explore this question using a combination of historical evidence and formal modeling.

On the surface this East Asian “little divergence” is extremely puzzling. Qing China, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, was a powerful centralized empire. An impersonal bureaucracy selected by exams, and routinely rotated, governed the empire. In contrast, the institutions of Tokugawa Japan are usually described as feudal. The shogun directly ruled only 15% of the country. The remainder was divided into 260 domains ruled by lords known as daimyo who collected their own taxes, possessed their own armies, and issued their own currencies. To the outside observer China would have seemed much more likely to have been able to establish the institutions or a centralized state than Japan.

Figure 1: Qing China and Tokugawa Japan

For much of the early modern period (1500–1700) China and Japan possessed military capabilities that made them more than a match for any western power. This changed dramatically after the Industrial Revolution and their vulnerability exposed by the Opium War (1839–1840) and the Black Ships Incident of 1853, respectively. During the First Opium a small number of British ships overpowered the entire Chinese navy, while Commodore Perry’s show of force in landing in Japan in 1853 convinced the Japanese of western naval superiority. Within a few years, political elites in both countries recognized the need to modernize if only to develop the military capacity required to fend off this new danger.

* * *

koyamajapanperry
Figure 2: Commodore Perry in Japanese eyes

In China, after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, there were attempts at modernizing — notably the Self-Strengthening movement associated with Li Hongzhang and others. Recent scholarship has reevaluated this movement positively. At the purely military-technological level it was in fact quite successful. The Jiangnan Arsenal and the Fuzhou Shipyard saw the successful importation of western military technology into China and the Chinese were soon producing modern ships and weaponry. However, these developments were associated with a process of political decentralization as local governors took on more and more autonomy. The importation of military technology was not associated with more far-reaching societal or political reforms. There was no serious attempt to modernize the Qing state.

In contrast, Japan, following the Meiji Restoration, embarked on whole scale-societal transformation. The daimyo lost all power. Feudalism was abolished. Compulsory education was introduced as was a nationwide railway system. A new fiscal system was imposed in the teeth of opposition from farmers. The samurai were disarmed and transformed from a military caste into bureaucrats and businessmen.

Qing China and the newly modernized Meiji Japan would collide in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). Before the war, western observers believed China would win in part because of their superior equipment. But the Chinese lacked a single national army. It was the Beiyang army and the Beiyang fleet that fought the entire Japanese military force. The fact that Japan had undergone a wholesale transformation of society enabled them to marshal the resources to win a rapid victory.

 

koyamabaiyanfleet
Figure 3: The Jingyuan, one of the ships in the Baiyang fleet

* * *

Why did the Japanese succeed in modernizing while Qing China failed to do so? Historians have proposed numerous explanations. In our paper, however, rather than focusing on cultural differences between Japan and China, we focus on how different geopolitical incentives shaped their decisions to invest in state capacity and state centralization.

Before the mid-19th century China only faced a threat from inner Asia from where historically nomadic invasions had routinely invaded and threatened the sedentary population of the Chinese plain. Due to this threat, historically China tended to be a centralized empire with its capital and the bulk of its professional army stationed close to the northern frontier (see Ko, Koyama, and Sng (2018)). In contrast, Japan faced no major geopolitical threats prior to 1850. This meant that it could retain a loose and decentralized political system.

After 1850 both countries faced major threats from several directions. China was threatened on its landward borders by Russian expansionism and from the coast by Britain and France (and later Germany and the United States). Japan was threatened from all directions by western encroachment.

We build a simple model which allows for multidirectional geopolitical threats. We represent each state as a line of variable length. States have to invest in state capacity to defend against external geopolitical threats. Each state can use centralized fiscal institutions or decentralized fiscal institutions.

If there is strong threat from one direction, as China faced prior to 1850, the dominant strategy is political centralization. In the absence of major geopolitical threats decentralization may be preferable as was the case in Tokugawa Japan.

The emergence of a multidirectional threat, however, changes things. A large country facing a multidirectional threat may have to decentralize in order to meet the different challenges it now faces. This is what happened in China after 1850. In contrast, for a small state with limited resources, an increase in the threat level makes centralization and resource pooling more attractive. For a small territory like Japan, the emergence of non-trivial foreign threats renders political decentralization untenable.

We then consider the incentives to modernize. Modernization is costly. It entails social dislocation and creates losers as well as winners, the losers will attempt to block any changes that hurt their interests. We show that for geographically compact polities, it is always a dominant strategy to modernize in the face of a multidirectional threat as the state is able to manage local opposition to reform. This helps to explain why all members of the Japanese political elite came around to favoring rapid modernization by the late 1860s.

Consistent with our model, modernization was more difficult and controversial in China. The Qing government and particularly the Empress Dowager famously opposed the building of railroads. The most well-known example of this was the Wusong Road in Shanghai. Built using foreign investment it was dismantled in 1877 after locals complained about it. The Qing state remained reactive and prepared to kowtow to local powerholders and vested interests rather than confront them. Despite local initiatives, no effort was made at wholesale reforms until after China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895.

koyamaindustrialization
Figure 4: The Wusong Railroad in 1876

* * *

By 1895 it was too late, however. The attempts of the Qing state to reform and modernize led to its collapse. Needless to state, East Asian’s little divergence would have lasting consequences.

Japan’s modernization program astonished foreign observers. Victory over Russia in 1904 propelled Japan to Great Power status but also set Japan on the path to disaster in the World War Two. Nevertheless, the institutional legacy of Japan’s successful late 19th century modernization played a crucial role in Japan’s post-1945 economic miracle.

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty China fragmented further entering the so-called warlord era (1916–1926). Though the Nationalist regime reunified the country and began a program of modernization, the Japanese invasion and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) devastated the country. The end result was that China came to be reunified by the Communist party and to experience more conflict and trauma until it began to embrace market reforms after 1979.

The End of the Past


On Branko Milanovic’s recommendation, I read Aldo Schiavone’s The End of the Past. Scholarly and elegantly written, it provides one of the best imaginative reconstructions of the ancient Roman economy.

Previous posts have touched on the economies of late antiquity, the modernist primitivist debate, and diagnosed problems in many recent assessments of the ancient economy (here, here, here, and here). I want to use Schiavone’s book to revisit a question raised by Peter Temin in The Roman Market Economy. How advanced was the Roman economy? Specifically, how did it compare to the economy of Europe in late medieval or early modern times? Was the Roman economy only as developed as that of Europe circa 1300 or was it as advanced as that of western Europe on the eve of the Industrial Revolution in say 1700.

This question is not mere idle speculation. It matters for our understanding of the causes of long-run economic growth whether an industrial revolution could have happened in Song China or ancient Rome. This type of counterfactual history is crucial for pinning down the casual mechanisms responsible for sustained growth, especially as historians like Bas van Bavel are now proposing explicitly cyclical accounts of growth in societies as varied as early medieval Iraq and the Dutch Republic (see The Invisible Hand? (OUP, 2016))

Temin’s GDP estimates suggest that Roman Italy had comparable per capita income to the Dutch Republic in 1600. The Empire as a whole, he suggests, may have been comparable to Europe in 1700 (Temin 2013, 261). My gut reaction is that this is plausible as an upper-bound. Schiavone (who was writing several years before Temin), however, raises important points that I had fully not considered previously.

Schiavone opens with an account of a speech given by Aelius Aristides celebrating the wealth of the Roman empire in the mid-2nd century AD.

“Whatever each culture grows and manufactures cannot fail to be here at all times and in great profusion. Here merchant vessels arrive carrying these many commodities from every region in every season and even at every equinox, so that the city takes on the appearance of a sort of common market for the world. One can see cargoes from India and even from southern Arabia in such numbers that one must conclude that the trees in those lands have been stripped bare, and if the inhabitants of those lands need anything, they must come here to beg for a share of what they have produced….

Your farmlands are Egypt, Sicily, and all of cultivated Africa. Seaborne arrivals and departures are ceaseless, to the point that the wonder is, not so much that the harbor has insufficient space for all these merchant vessels, but that the sea has enough space (if it really does). Just as there is a common channel where all waters of the Ocean have a single source and destination, so that there is a common channel to Rome and all meet here: trade, shipping, agriculture, metallurgy— all the arts and crafts that are or ever were and all things that are produced or spring from the earth. What one does not see here does not exist” (Aristides, The Roman Oration).

This is a panegyric addressed to flatter the emperor but its emphasis on long-distance trade, commerce, manufacturing is highly suggestive. Such a speech is all but impossible to imagine in an predominantly rural and autarkic society. Aristides is painting a picture of a highly developed commercialized economy that linked together the entire Mediterranean and beyond. Even if he is grossly exaggerates, the imagine he depicts must have been plausible to his audience. In evaluating the Roman economy in the age of Aristides, Schaivone notes that:

“Until at least mid-seventeenth century Amsterdam, so expertly described by Simon Schama — the city of Rembrandt, Spinoza, and the great sea-trade companies, the product of the Dutch miracle and the first real “globalization of the economy — or at least, until the Spanish empire of Philip II, the total wealth accumulated and produced in the various regions of Europe reached levels that were not too far from those of the ancient world” (Schiavone, 2000, 94).

This is the point Temin makes. Whether measured in terms of the size of its largest cities — Rome in 100 AD was larger than any European city in 1700 — or in the volume of grain, wine, and olive oil imported into Italy, the scale of the Roman economy was vast by any premodern standard. Quantitatively, then, the Roman economy looks as large and prosperous as that the early modern European economy.

Qualitatively, however, there are important differences that Schiavone draws out and which have been obscured in recent quantitative debates about GDP estimates.

Observe that Roman history leaves no traces of great mercantile companies like the Bardi, the Peruzzi or the Medici. There are no records of commercial manuals of the sort that are abundant from Renaissance Italy; no evidence of “class-struggle” as we have from late medieval Europe; and no political economy or “economics”, that is, no attempts to systematize one’s thoughts and insights concerning the commercial world. The ancient world, in this view, only superficially resembled that of early modern Europe. Seen from this perspective, the latter contained the potential for sustained growth; the former did not. Why is this?


The most obvious institutional difference between the ancient world and the modern was slavery. Recently historians have tried to elevate slavery and labor coercion as crucial causal mechanism in explaining the industrial revolution. These attempts are unconvincing (see this post) but slavery certainly did dominate the ancient economy.

In its attempt to draw together the various strands through which slavery permeated the ancient economy, Schiavone’s chapter “Slaves, Nature, Machines” is a tour de force. At once he captures the ubiquity of slavery in the ancient economy, its unremitting brutality—for instance, private firms that specialized in branding, retrieving, and punishing runaway slaves — and, at the same time, touches the central economic questions raised by ancient slavery: to what extent was slavery crucial to the economic expansion of period between 200 BCE and 150 AD? And did the prevalence of slavery impede innovation?

It is impossible to do justice to the argument in a single post. Suffice to say that after much discussion, and many fascinating interludes, Schiavone suggests that ultimately the economic stagnation of the ancient world was due to a peculiar equilibrium that centered around slavery.

One can think of this equilibrium as resting on a two legs. The first is the observation that the apparent modernity of the ancient economy — its manufacturing, trade, and commerce rested largely on slave labor. The expansion of trade and commerce in the Mediterranean after 200 BC both rested on, and drove, the expansion of slavery. Here Schiavone note that the ancient reliance on slaves as human automatons — machines with souls — removed or at least weakened, the incentive to develop machines for productive purposes.

The existence of slavery, however, was not the only reason for the neglect of productive innovation. There was also a specific cultural attitude that formed the second leg of the equilibrium:

“None of the great engineers and architects, none of the incomparable builders of bridges, roads, and aqueducts, none of the experts in the employment of the apparatus of war, and none of their customers, either in the public administration or in the large landowning families, understood that the most advantageous arena for the use and improvement of machines — devices that were either already in use or easily created by association, or that could be designed to meet existing needs — would have been farms and workshops”

The relevance of slavery colored ancient attitudes towards almost all forms of manual work or craftsmanship. The dominant cultural meme was as follows: since such work was usually done by the unfree, it must be lowly, dirty and demeaning:

“technology, cooperative production, the various kinds of manual labor that were different from the solitary exertion of the peasants on his land — could not but end up socially and intellectually abandoned to the lowliest members of the community, in direct contact with the exploitation of the slaves, for whom the necessity and demand increased out of all proportion . . . the labor of slaves was in symmetry with and concealed behind (so to speak) the freedom of the aristocratic thought, while this in turn was in symmetry with the flight from a mechanical and quantitative vision of nature”

Thus this attitude also manifest itself in the disdain the ancients had for practical mechanics:

Similar condescension was shown to small businessmen and to most trade (only truly largely-scale trade was free from this taint). The ancient world does not seem to have produced self-reproducing mercantile elites. Plausible this was in part because of the cultural dominance of the landowning aristocracy.

The phenomenon coined by Fernand Braudel, the “Betrayal of the Bourgeois,” was particularly powerful in ancient Rome. Great merchants flourished, but “in order to be truly valued, they eventually had to become rentiers, as Cicero affirmed without hesitation: ‘Nay, it even seems to deserve the highest respect, if those who are engaged in it [trade], satiated, or rather , I should say, satisfied with the fortunes they have made, make their way from port to a country estate, as they have often made it from the sea into port. But of all the occupations by which gain is secured, none is better than agriculture, none more delightful, none more becoming to a freeman’” (Schiavone, 2000, 103).

Such a cultural argument fits perfectly with Deirdre McCloskey’s claim in her recent trilogy that it was the adoption of bourgeois cultural norms and specifically bourgeois rhetoric that distinguished and caused the rise of north-western Europe after 1650 (here, here, and here).


Having taken note of the existence of such a powerful equilibrium — one resting on both material and cultural foundations, we can now return to Schiavone’s argument for why a modern capitalist economy did not develop in antiquity. He argues that given the prominence of slavery and the prestige of the landowning elite, economic expansion and growth of the kind that took place between c. 200 BCE to 150 CE was not self-reinforcing. It generated a growth efflorescence that lasted several centuries, but it ultimately undermined itself because it was based on an intensification of the slave economy that, in turn, reinforced the cultural supremacy of the landowning aristocracy and this cultural supremacy in turn eroded the incentives responsible for driving growth.

Compare and contrast with early modern Europe. The most advanced economies of early modern Europe, say England in 1700, were on the surface not too dissimilar to that of ancient Rome. But beneath the surface they contained the “coiled spring”, or at least the possibility, of sustained economic growth — growth driven by the emergence of innovation (a culture of improvement) and a commercial or even capitalist culture. According to Schiavone’s assessment, the Roman economy at least by 100 CE contained no such coiled spring.

We are not yet at the point when we can decisively assess this argument. But the importance of culture and the manner in which cultural and material factors interacted is clearly crucial. The argument that the slave economy and the easy assumptions of aristocratic superiority reinforced one another is a powerful one. For whatever historical reasons these cultural elements in the Roman economy were relatively undisturbed by the rise of merchants, traders and money grubbing equites. Likewise slavery did not undermine itself and give rise to wage labor.

Why this was the case can be left to future analysis. The full answer to the question why this was the case and a more careful consideration of the counterfactual “could it have been otherwise” are topics deserving their own blog post.

The legacy of autocratic rule in China

What is the long-term legacy of political persecutions? Here I want to present the main findings of my recent research with Melanie Meng Xue (UCLA Anderson). Our research is an attempt to undercover how a legacy of political persecution can shape social capital and civil society by studying imperial China. The full version of the paper is available here.

We know from other research that particular institutions, policies, and events can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on economic and political outcomes (e.g. Nunn 2011, Voigtländer and Voth, 2012). But it is hard to find a setting where we can study the long-run impact of autocratic institutions. A key feature of autocracy is the use of persecutions to intimidate potential opponents. In our paper, Melanie and I argue that the intensification of imperial autocracy that took place in the High Qing period (1680-1794) provides an ideal setting to study the impact of such persecutions.

Qing China

The High Qing period was one of great political stability, imperial expansion, and internal peace. Economic historians like Bin Wong and Ken Pomeranz have shown that China possessed a flourishing market economy during this period; it experienced Smithian economic growth and a massive demographic expansion. Rulers such as the Kangxi (1661-1722) and Qianlong Emperors (1735-1794) are seen as among the most successful in Chinese history. Nevertheless, as ethnic Manchus, these rulers were extremely sensitive to possible opposition from the Han Chinese. And during this period Qing tightened control over the gentry and implemented a policy of the systematic persecution of dissent. (Figure 1 depicts the Manchu conquest of China.)

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The Qing conquest of China

The Literary Inquisitions

The focus of our paper is on the impact of persecutions conducted by Qing China against individuals suspected of expressing disloyalty. We study the impact of these state-orchestrated persecutions on the social fabric of society. This allows us to speak to the kinds of concerns that authors like Hannah Arendt and George Orwell expressed about the long-run impact of totalitarianism in the 20th century.

These persecutions are referred to by historians as ‘literary inquisitions’. Existing scholarship suggests that the resulting fear of persecution elevated the risks facing writers and scholars, and created an atmosphere of oppression and a culture of distrust which deterred intellectuals from playing an active role in society. But these claims have never been systematically investigated. Putting together several unique datasets for historical and modern China, we explore the impact of literary inquisitions on social capital in Qing China and trace its long-run impact on modern China through its effect on cultural values.

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Jonathan Spence provides an excellent account of one of the most famous and unusual inquisition cases in his book Treason by the Book

To conduct our analysis, we use data on 88 inquisition cases. We match the victims of each case (there are often multiple victims per case) to their home prefecture. This data is depicted in Figure 1. Since prefectures varied greatly in their economic, social, and political characteristics we conduct our analysis on a matched sample. This ensures that the prefectures “treated” by a literary inquisition are similar in terms of their observables to those we code as “untreated”. As our data is a panel, we are able to exploit variation across time as well as variation in space.

While individuals could be persecuted for a host of reasons, these were all but impossible to anticipate ex ante. Cases were referred to the emperor himself. Frederic Wakeman called this “the institutionalization of Imperial subjectivity.” The standard punishment in such cases was death by Lingchi or (slow slicing) and the enslavement of all one’s immediate relatives. In some cases, however, the guilty party would be executed by beheading. These persecutions aimed to deter opposition to Qing rule by signaling the ability of the Emperor to hunt down all potential critics or opponents of the regime.

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The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on Social Capital

We initially focus on the impact of persecution on the short and medium-run using our historical panel. We first examine the effects on the number of notable scholars.  In our preferred specification we find that a literary inquisition reduced the number of notable scholars in a prefecture by 33 percent relative to the sample mean.

We go on to show the effect of persecutions on collective participation among the gentry in China. Our measure of collective participation in civil society is the number of charitable organizations. Charitable organizations played an important role in premodern China providing disaster relief and local public goods such as repairing local roads. They were non-governmental organizations and played an important role alongside the government provision of disaster relief. In our preferred empirical specification, we find that a persecution number of charitable organizations by 38 percent relative to the sample mean.

These results are in keeping with the argument that literary inquisition had a major psychological impact on Chinese society. They are consistent with the rise of “inoffensive” literary subjects during the Qing period that have documented by historians. To reduce the risk of persecution, intellectuals scrupulously avoided activities that could be interpreted as constituting an undermining of Qing rule. Instead they “immersed themselves in the non-subversive “sound learning” and engaged in textual criticism, bibliography, epigraphy, and other innocuous, purely scholarly pursuits” (Wiens, 1969, 16).

The Impact of Literary Inquisitions on 20th Century Outcomes

We go on to examine how the effects of these persecutions can be traced into the 20th century. In particular, we focus on the provision of basic education at the end of Qing dynasty. In late 19th and early 20th century China, there was no centralized governmental provision of primary schools.  Basic education remained the responsibility of the local gentry who ran local schools.

Thus the provision of education at a local level was dependent on the ability of educated individuals to coordinate in the mobilization of resources; this required both cooperation and trust. We therefore hypothesize that if the persecution of intellectuals had a detrimental impact on social capital, it should also have negatively affected the provision of basic education.

We find that among individuals aged over 70 in the 1982 census – hence individuals who were born in the late Qing period – a legacy of a literary inquisition is associated with lower levels of literacy. This reflects the impact of literary inquisition on the voluntary schools provided by the gentry and is not associated with lower enrollment at middle school or high school. We show that result is robust to controlling for selective migration and for the number of death caused by the Cultural Revolution.

Finally, we show that literary inquisitions generated a cultural of political non-participation. Drawing on two datasets of political attitudes – the Chinese General Social Survey (CGSS) and the Chinese Political Compass (CPoC) – we show that individuals in areas in which individuals were targeted during literary inquisitions are both less trusting of government and less interested in political participation.

Finally, we find that individuals in prefectures with a legacy of literary inquisitions are less likely to agree that: “Western-style multi-party systems are not suitable for China” (Q 43.). This suggests that in areas affected by literary inquisitions individuals are also more skeptical of the claims of the Chinese government and more open to considering alternative political systems. Similarly, individuals in affected prefectures are more likely to disagree with the statement that: “Modern China needs to be guided by wisdom of Confucius/Confucian thinking.”

In summary, our analysis suggests that autocratic rule reduced social capital and helped to produce a culture of political quietism in pre-modern China. This has left a legacy that persisted into the 20th century. These findings have implications for China’s current political trajectory. Some scholars anticipate China undergoing a democratic transition as it’s economy develops (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012). Others point to China as an example of “authoritarian resilience.” By showing that a long-history of autocratic rule and political persecutions can produce a culture of political apathy, our results shed light on a further and previously under-explored source of authoritarian resilience.