Revisiting Epstein’s Freedom and Growth


I was fortunate to be invited give the Epstein Lecture at LSE this March. The series is named after the great LSE economic historian Larry (Stephen) Epstein. Here I’ll summarize why it was such an honor to give the lectures. The content of the lecture will be another post.

Epstein was a historian whose origin field of expertise was medieval Italy. I encountered him through Freedom and Growth. Published in 2000, I first read it a couple of years later, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. At the time I was devoted to a story of economic growth shaped by Douglass North, particularly Structure and Change in Economic History (1981).

The focus of Structure and Change was on transaction costs. High transaction costs limited market exchange and kept societies poor for most of history. Sustained economic growth could only occur once transaction costs fell to a level that allowed markets to expand and the division of labor to develop. On this view, market expansion or Smithian growth was itself a stimulus to technological innovation. But what kept transaction costs high?

One answer North gave was the state. To paraphrase: the state had the ability to both keep a society mired in poverty through predatory behavior and to provide the preconditions for growth by securing property rights. The origins of sustained economic growth for North lay in institutional changes that occurred secured property rights and lowered transaction costs. The most important such institutional change was the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


North’s account received many challenges, but the issue that Epstein honed in on was the assumption that there was such a state, able to either revoke or secure property rights. It was assumed that “rulers rule”. Epstein contested this arguing that New Institutional Economists

“project backwards in time a form of centralised sovereignty and jurisdictional integration that was first achieved in Continental Europe during the nineteenth century; they therefore fundamentally misrepresent the character of pre-modern states.”

North, Wallis, and Weingast would address this in their 2009 Violence and Social Orders. But Epstein’s criticism was spot on in 2000. Epstein argued that alongside the problem of predatory states, a central problem was the lack of integrated markets. He attributed market disintegration to coordination and prisoners’ dilemma problems between political authorities. In so doing, Epstein set the agenda for the subsequent “state capacity” research agenda.

Epstein made several points which continued to be expanded upon by current research (see here). First, he documented that the lower interest rates that the British state paid after 1688 were characteristic of city republics from the middle ages onwards. He argued that the English monarchy in the 17th century was characterized by an anomalously backwards financial system. Lower interest rates after 1688 partly represent a convergence to the Republican norm achieved by Italian city-states centuries earlier.

Second, he challenged the argument that monarchies “overtaxed” cities. There was “no evidence that townspeople paid higher taxes under monarchies than republics”. Per capita taxes were likely higher in Republican city-states.

Third, he disputed that Republican city-states like Florence brought economic freedom noting that “republican subjects faced several limitations to their economic and political freedoms that monarchical subjects did not”. All of this challenged generalizations made by historical sociologists like Charles Tilly and economic historians like North.


Epstein’s historical evidence came from medieval Italy. Late medieval Italy was highly urbanized and prosperous by pre-industrial standards. According to Broadberry’s estimates, per capita GDP in Italy in 1450 was not matched by England until 1750. Like growth elsewhere in the premodern world, it was Smithian growth, driven by trade, market integration, and the division of labor. But unlike in England, this Smithian growth did not continue and blossom into modern growth. Epstein’s explanation for why this did not take place was that late medieval Italy suffered an “integration crisis”.

He saw the late medieval period as characterized by new opportunities for growth and innovation. Urbanization increased. Capital markets expanded and deepened. Interregional trade developed. Proto-industrialization took place. But Epstein contended these opportunities were only seized in areas where political authority was centralization.

In reference to proto-industrialization, he observed that

“Crucially, the success of regional crafts was inversely proportional to the concentration of economic and institutional power in the hands of a dominant city.”

With respect to the establishment of permanent fairs, he noted that

In fifteenth-century Lombardy, new fairs proliferated only after the balance of power shifted decisively from the former city-states to the territorial prince with Francesco Sforza’s victory in 1447.

Market integration was complemented and perhaps driven by political integration. Integrated urban hierarchies were themselves the product of political centralization.

“Centralisation underlies all the major institutional changes to market structures previously described. It lowered domestic transport costs, made it easier to enforce contracts and to match demand and supply, intensified economic competition between towns and strengthened urban hierarchies, weakened urban monopolies over the countryside, and stimulated labour mobility and technological diffusion.”

The more centralized parts of Italy — notably Lombardy — were better able to benefit from these trends than was Tuscany. But in general, political fragmentation and regional diversity were “distinctive features of pre-modern Italy” in general and an impediment to its long-run growth prospects.

Unlike in his analysis of interest rates, Epstein brought little data to bear on these claims and I am unaware of subsequent research on late medieval Italy. As such, the thesis of a late medieval integration crisis laid out in Freedom and Growth remains speculative. Epstein would no doubt have fill in the details had he lived longer. Subsequent research has mostly focused on early modern rather than medieval Europe (see here).  But the larger message: the importance of the state for premodern economic development has been central to subsequent research, including my own work (e.g. here).

Rosenbloom on the Colonial American Economy

Joshua Rosenbloom is an economic historian worth following if you are interested in American economic history during the colonial era. He has recently published what appears to be an overview article of the topic (probably for a book or an invited symposium) which perfectly summarizes the current state of the research. I believe that this should be widely read by interested parties.  Here are key excerpts for some of the topics he discusses. I provide some comments to enrich his contribution, but these should be understood as complements rather than substitutes to this excellent overview of the American economy during the colonial era.

On Economic Growth 

Mancall and Weiss (…) concluded that likely rates of per capita GDP growth could not have been higher than 0.1 percent per year and were likely closer to zero. In subsequent work, Mancall, Rosenbloom and Weiss (2004) and Rosenbloom and Weiss (2014) have constructed similar estimates for the colonies and states of the Lower South and the Mid-Atlantic regions, respectively. Applying the method of controlled conjectures at a regional level allowed them to incorporate additional, region-specific, evidence about agricultural  productivity and exports, and reinforced the finding that there was little if any growth in GDP per capita during the eighteenth century. Lindert and Williamson (2016b) have also attempted to backcast their estimates of colonial incomes. Their estimates rely in part on the regional estimates of Mancall, Rosenbloom and Weiss, but the independent evidence they present is consistent with the view that economic growth was quite slow during the eighteenth century.

This is still a contentious point (see notably this article by McCusker), but I believe that they are correct. In my own work, using both wages and incomes, I have found similar results for Canada and Leticia Arroyo Abad and Jan Luiten Van Zanden have found something roughly similar for the Latin American economies (Mexico and Peru).

It is also consistent with even simplistic accounts of the neoclassical growth model. The New World was an economy of abundant land input whose outputs (agricultural produce) were mostly meant for local consumption. If one wanted to increase his income, all he had to do was use more inputs at really low costs. There is very little in this situation to invest in increasing total factor productivity and incomes would only increase at the dis-aggregated level (following the same region over time) as we are capturing the extent of inputs included over time (e.g. the long-settled farmer has a high income because he has had the time to build his farm, but the short-settled farmer brings the average down because he is just starting that process).

On Monetary History and Monetary Puzzles

In lieu of specie, the colonists relied heavily on barter for local exchange. In the Chesapeake transactions were often denominated in weights of tobacco. However, tobacco was not used as a medium of exchange. Rather merchants might advance credit to planters for the purchase of imported items, to be repaid at harvest with the specified quantity of tobacco. Elsewhere book credit accounts helped to facilitate transactions and reduce the need for currency. The colonists regularly complained about the shortage of specie, but as Perkins (1988, p. 165) observed, the long run history of prices does not suggest any tendency of prices to fall, as would be expected if the money supply was too small. (…) With only a few exceptions the colonies issuance of these notes did not give rise to inflationary pressures. There is by now a large literature that has analyzed the relationship between note issuance and prices, and finds little evidence of any correlation between the series (Weiss 1970, 1974; Wicker 1985; Smith 1985; Grubb 2016. As Grubb (2016) has argued, this suggests that while the circulation of bills of credit may have facilitated exchange by substituting for book credit or other forms of barter, they did not assume the role of currency.

In this, Rosenbloom summarizes a puzzle which has been the subject of debates since the 1970s (starting with West in 1978 in this Economic Inquiry article). In many instances (like South Carolina and Pennsylvania), the large issues of paper money had no measurable effect on prices.  This is a puzzle given the quantity theory of the price level. The proposition to solve the puzzle is that as the paper money printed by colonies tended to be backed by future assets, they were securities that could circulate as a medium of exchange. If properly backed and redeemed, people would form expectations that these injections were temporary injections and there would be no effect on the price level all else being equal. Inflation would only occur if redemption promises were not held or were believed to be humbug. This proposition has been heavily contested given the limited information we hold for the stock of other media of exchange and trade balances. I have my own take on this debate on which I weigh using a similar Canadian monetary experiment (see here), but this is a serious debate. Basically, it is a historical battleground between the proponents of the fiscal theory of the price level (see notably the classical Sargent and Wallace article) and the proponents of the quantity theory of the price level.  Anyone interested in the wider macroeconomic debate should really focus on these colonial experiments because they really are the perfect testing grounds (which Rosenbloom summarizes efficiently).

On Mercantilism, the Navigation Acts and American Living Standards

The requirement that major colonial exports pass through England on their way to continental markets and that manufactures be imported from England was the equivalent of imposing a tax on this trade. The resulting price wedge reduced the volume of trade and shifted some of the producer and consumer surplus to the providers of shipping and merchant services. A number of cliometric studies have attempted to estimate the magnitude of these effects to determine whether they played a role in encouraging the movement for independence (Harper 1939; Thomas 1968; Ransom 1968; McClelland 1969). The major difference in these studies arises from different approaches to formulating a counterfactual estimate of how large trade would have been in the absence of the Navigation Acts. In general, the estimates suggest that the cost to the colonists was relatively modest, in the range of 1-3 percent of annual income. Moreover, this figure needs to be set against the benefits of membership in the empire, which included the protection the British Navy afforded colonial merchants and military protection from hostile natives and other European powers.

The Navigation Acts were often cited as a burden that the colonists despised, but many economic historians have gone over their impact and they appear to have been minimal. It does not mean that they were insignificant to political events (rent-seeking coalitions tend to include small parties with intense preferences). However, it does imply that the action lies elsewhere if someone wants to explain the root causes of the revolution or that one must consider distributional effects (see notably this article here).

These are the sections that I found the most interesting (as they relate to some of my research agendas), but the entire article provides an effective summary for anyone interested in initiating research on the topic of American economic history during the colonial era. I really recommend reading it even if all that you seek is an overview for general culture.

How poor was 18th century France? Steps towards testing the High-Wage Hypothesis (HWE)

A few days ago, one of my articles came online at the Journal of Interdisciplinary HistoryIt is a research note, but as far as notes go this one is (I think) an important step forwards with regards to the High-Wage Hypothesis (henceforth HWE for high-wage economy) of industrialization.

In the past, I explained my outlook on this theory which proposes that high wages relative to energy was a key driver of industrialization. As wages were high while energy was cheap, firms had incentives to innovate and develop labor-saving technologies.  I argued that I was not convinced by the proposition because there were missing elements to properly test its validity. In that post I argued that to answer why the industrial revolution was British we had to ask why it was not French (a likely competitor). For the HWE to be a valid proposition, wages had to be higher in England than in France by a substantial margin. This is why I have been interested in living standards in France.

In his work, Robert Allen showed that Paris was the richest city in France (something confirmed by Phil Hoffman in his own work). It was also poorer than London (and other British cities). The other cities of France were far behind. In fact, by the 18th century, Allen’s work suggests that Strasbourg (the other city for which he had data) was one of the poorest in Europe.

In the process of assembling comparisons between Canada and France during the colonial era (from the late 17th to the mid-18th centuries), I went to the original sources that Allen used and found that the level of living standards is understated. First, I found out that the wages were not for Strasbourg per se. They applied to a semi-rural community roughly 70km away from Strasbourg.  Urban wages and rural wages tend to differ massively and so they were bound to show lower living standards. Moreover, the prices Allen used for his basket applied to urban settings. This means that the wages used were not comparable to the other cities used. I also found out that the type of work that was reported in the sources may not have belonged to unskilled workers but rather to semi-skilled or even skilled workers and that the wages probably included substantial in-kind payments.

Unfortunately, I could not find a direct solution to correct the series proposed by Allen. However, there were two ways to circumvent the issue. The most convincing of those two methods relies on using the reported wages for agricultural workers. While this breaks with the convention established by Allen (a justifiable convention in my opinion) of using urban wages and prices, it is not a problem if we compare with similar types of wage work. We do have similar data to compare with in the form of Gregory Clark’s farm wages in England. The wage rates computed by Allen placed Strasbourg at 64% of the level of wages for agricultural workers in England between 1702 and 1775. In comparison, the lowest of the agricultural wage rates for the Alsatian region places the ratio at 74%. The other wage rates are much closer to wages in England.  The less convincing methods relies on semi-skilled construction workers – which is not ideal. However, when these are compared to English wages, they are also substantially higher.

Overall, my research note attempts a modest contribution: properly measure the extent to which wages were lower in France than in Britain. I am not trying to solve the HWE debate with this. However, it does come one step closer to providing the information to do so. Now that we know that the rest of France was not as poor as believed (something which is confirmed by the recent works of Leonardo Ridolfi and Judy Stephenson), we can more readily assess if the gap was “big enough” to matter.  If it was not big enough to matter, then we have to move to one of the other five channels that could confirm the HWE (at least that means I have more papers to write).

Digging Deeper into Populism: A Short Reply to Derril Watson

Derril Watson offer some critical remarks on my short post about populism in Latin America. In short, Watson is arguing that (1) I’m stating something obvious (populism diminishes economic freedom) and (2) that I’m wrong when I say that populism fails to produce economic growth.

Seems I haven’t been quite clear, because I state none of the above. The intention of my post is not to show that populism decreases economic freedom, I think this is uncontroversial. The point of the post is to show, with a very simple calculation, how fast economic freedom is reduced. I might be wrong, but I have the impression that most individuals do not realize how fast they can loose their economic liberties under this type of government. This is the message carried in the title of the post “How fast does populism destroy economic freedom in Latin America?” rather than “Does populism destroy economic freedom in Latin America?”

With respect to the second point, my claim is not that under populism there is no growth of GDP, my claim is that “populist governments failed to increase GDP per capita consistently faster than the region.” My original post is just a small bite of a paper that is still work in progress and I’ll share in due time. I wasn’t expecting this claim to be controversial. Still, the figure below shows the ratio of GDP per capita (PPP) of each of he countries I observe with respect to Latin America. All countries are centered in year 0 as the first year of populism as defined in my original post. That’s the first dot in the graph. The second dot shows either the last data available or the end of populism. None of these countries show a consistent higher growth rate than the rest of the region.

Populism - Fig 1

It seems to me that Watson is confusing growth with recovery. The fact that economic growth produces a growth in GDP does not mean that a growth in GDP is due to economic growth. The recovery mentioned by Watson in Argentina happens after the largest crisis in the history of the country and the largest default worldwide at the time. As I mentioned in my post, Argentina hits stagflation in 2007. This suggests to me a rapid recovery with no significant growth and built upon an unsustainable policy (for instance, Argentina fails to improve its relative income with respect to the region, it rather stagnates in 2007 and starts to fall a few years after.) I can show a large increase in my personal GDP as measured by consumption by depleting my savings (consuming my capital stock at the country level). I wouldn’t call that personal economic growth. The Kirchner government, for instance, failed to reduce poverty below the levels seen in the 1990s. It does, of course, if that is compared with the poverty levels around the years of the crisis (which is what Watson’s table is doing.) It should also be kept in mind that official poverty measures in Argentine were hampered by the government.

There’s still another important issue regarding GDP measures of Argentina. As it became well known, GDP series were hampered by the government (also inflation and poverty rates were hampered.) By 2014 official GDP values were overestimating the size of the economy by 24%. Another sign is the evolution of real wages in Argentina, which hits a ceiling again in 2007 with a level similar to the one at the end of 2001 (just before the crisis). In 2008, 2009, and 2010 real wages decline.

As a final comment, I’m not sure to what comment of mine Watson refers to. I don’t see a comment entry of mine in my original post, nor I remember doing so. In any case, I don’t get into the definition of populism precisely for how difficult that task can be. The problem of defying populism is one of the areas covered in my yet unfinished paper.

Digging Deeper into Populism

TL;DR summary: The one thing most populist governments studied had in common was a declining protection for property rights. Focus there next time.

Nicolás Cachanosky explained that populism in five Latin American countries had led to a rapid deterioration in their economic freedom, intimating that this also led to a relative drop in living standards compared to other South American countries. Given that the two primary economic strategies of populism are control and spend (Dornbusch and Edwards 1991 quoting Carbonetto et al. 1987), it would be shocking if a populist government did not reduce economic freedom. That’s the idea! However, there is more we could learn about how populism reduces economic freedom by doing a little more to identify exactly what it was that populist governments did. First, I think it’s useful to go a little further back, to compare how trends were looking before* populism (say by 1991) to how those trends changed with the election of a populist government. Second, I’m going to take a more careful look at how and why economic freedom decreased.

It is funny to me that when Cachanosky’s response to his first commenter is to ask for a definition and a measure before being willing to debate a correction; that suggests he really ought to have been more careful to define populism in his post. In fairness, that’s a tall order*: much of the literature on populism has been trying to define it and there is still no consensus as far as I can tell. Are we focusing primarily on increasing statism, whether it is called populism or progressivism or socialism or cronyism? Or is there something special about the populist brand of statism that we should be looking out for? To the extent populism is a “power to the people” movement, Libertarianism itself could try to appropriate the populist brand and claim they are taking power back from the government for the people! I don’t think this is what Cachanosky has in mind. :). I tend to think that he is focused mostly on statism and for the purposes of his post, it doesn’t matter whether it’s populism or socialism that caused it, so please assume when I say “populism” hereafter, I mean increased state control over the economy.

Even given that, populism/statism exists on a continuum. There is a marked difference between a determined populist government that nationalizes wide swathes of an economy rapidly in order to redistribute riches to the common people and someone in an unnamed developed country who uses populist rhetoric to get elected and keep his base happy only to turn around once in office and enact largely pro-business deregulations and strengthen conservative social mores.

Because of this, it’s important to make distinctions between the 5 countries in question (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela). To demonstrate that, let me focus on Argentina and Brazil. Mueller and Mueller (2012) contrast Brazil and Argentina’s responses to the global food price crisis in 2006-08, during this populist period in both countries. There have been very few checks and balances on executive power in Argentina, allowing the Kirchners to enact “opportunistic price controls and intrusive export bans, generating significant discontent and investment disincentives” (pg 3). In Brazil, the checks on the presidency to prevent a repeat of the late 80s/early 90s inflation led to “the surprising conversion of President Lula once in office in 2003, reneging the leftish policy agenda his party had defended for years in the opposition, only to continue the fiscally disciplined macroeconomic policies of his predecessor” (pg 5). These kinds of difference are very important to understand what happens and when and why.This table shows how Heritage’s Economic Freedom in the World survey ranked the five countries Cachanosky singles out as populist in 1995 when the survey started, the year when they elected a populist government, and 2015; I then add five other South American countries for comparison. 10 represents high economic freedom and 1 very low freedom. The astute reader will notice that I am using the raw scores rather than country rankings as Cachanosky does because I suspect it matters more for economic growth what happens within my country rather than thinking economic growth will collapse because a handful of other countries on other continents become more free while I stay put where I am: I will look worse by comparison, but not be worse.

Heritage Overall
1991 start 2015
Argentina (2003) 6.8 5.6 4.4
Bolivia (2006) 5.8 5.8 4.7
Brazil (2002) 5.1 6.2 5.6
Ecuador (2007) 5.7 5.5 4.9
Venezuela (1999) 6 5.6 3.4
Heritage overall
1995 2005 2015
Chile 7.1 7.8 7.9
Colombia 6.5 6 7.2
Paraguay 6.6 6.1 6.8
Peru 5.7 5.3 6.1
Uruguay 6.3 6.7 6.9

To delve into the Argentina/Brazil comparison again, the survey shows Argentina scoring markedly higher than Brazil in 1995. This situation had already reversed itself by 2003 and the start of populism. Since then Argentina has continued to fall rapidly while Brazil has turned reversed its progress. Delving deeper into those numbers, Argentina has become markedly less free in terms of almost every category Heritage measures (respect for property rights in 2001-2003, government integrity 2006-2008, tax burden, government spending since 2011, business freedom in 2002, and monetary, investment, and financial freedom in 2003), while Brazil’s primary sin was an increase in spending in 2006 and an increase in taxes to pay for it. That’s it. This shows a real deterioration in Argentinian freedom before populism, a trend only continued and exacerbated by the Kirchners, while Brazil has shown both improvement and decline, with a much different, constrained form of policy making. Argentinian populism and Brazilian are far from the same phenomenon.

In Bolivia and Ecuador, property rights fell in 2001 and investment freedom by 2005 before populism in either country and both slid down steadily after electing a populist government; both countries have improved in government integrity, taxes got worse in Ecuador in 2008 with spending increasing massively in 2010, and financial freedom worsened after populism started. Venezuela saw the largest decrease in respect for property rights right after electing Chavez and again in 2008. In contrast to other countries, Chavez initially reduced government spending and kept taxes roughly constant, with spending not increasing again until after 2008. Business and financial freedom declined steadily, investment freedom plummeted in 2004, and monetary freedom only declined in 2014.

We see then five rather different patterns, even though most of them saw the same sort of decline of 1.2-1.4 points. The key feature in all but Brazil is the decrease in respect for property rights shortly after the election of a populist government. Spending also tends to be higher in these five countries, though all happened during the global food price crisis and the US/EU financial crisis when spending also increased by many non-populist countries as well. Otherwise, there is very little in common among the five countries, with some embracing freer trade and others fleeing it, some cracking down on monetary and financial freedoms with others largely ignoring them. Our five ‘control’ countries saw an improvement in economic freedom from 2005-201, particularly in Colombia.  Colombia and Peru reduced their respect for property rights in 2002, but later repented; Paraguay has not held property rights in even modest esteem since 1998.

All of this suggests the place to look in future research is to the importance of declining respect for property rights among populist governments as a driver of economic freedom and economic growth.

And that brings us to the second of Cachanosky’s points – that this drop in economic freedom in those five countries led to shrinking economies compared to other economies in the region. First off, to be clear, all five of these populist economies experienced rapid economic growth during the time period in question, and this economic growth was much higher than the economic growth enjoyed in the decade before populism started. This would lead pro-populists to conclude that populism was actually quite good. Cachanosky admits that even though Argentina fell farther in the economic freedom rankings than its peers, its GDP/capita actually increased. He excuses this as being “largely explained as recovery after the 2001 crisis and by consuming capital stock, not as an expansion of potential output.” Unfortunately for his story, Argentina’s GDP/capita in terms of real USDollars not only surpassed its pre-crisis level (around $12300 in 1998), but rose to $17500 – a 42% increase during its populist period. (All numbers from www.gapminder.org are PPP$ inflation-adjusted.) In every single case he cites, GDP/capita rose while the headcount poverty rate fell dramatically.

However, compare their growth to the five control countries, and compare the time period before and after in each case:

GDP/cap (PPP$) Growth poverty (% below $3/day)
1991 start 2015 91-start start-15 1991 start 2014
Argentina (2003) 9330 10300 17500 10.40 69.90 3.9 19.1 4.3
Bolivia (2006) 3850 4370 6150 13.51 40.73 30.4 32.4 12.7
Brazil (2002) 10300 11600 15400 12.62 32.76 35.8 24.5 7.56
Ecuador (2007) 7690 7810 10800 1.56 38.28 36.5 32.9 10.2
Venezuela (1999) 16100 14200 15800 -11.80 11.27 N/A N/A N/A
GDP/cap (PPP$) Growth poverty (% below $3/day)
1991 2003 2015 91-start start-15 1991 2003 2014
Chile 9750 15500 22500 58.97 45.16 N/A N/A N/A
Colombia 7780 8680 12400 11.57 42.86 22.7 26.6 13.2
Paraguay 6040 5870 8040 -2.81 36.97 7.9 19.4 7
Peru 5290 6880 11500 30.06 67.15 33.9 27.2 9
Uruguay 10100 11500 19900 13.86 73.04 2.1 5.2 1.3

The 2003-2015 period was good across the board in South America, with most growing at least 30% more from 2003ish-2015 compared to 1991-2003. Similarly, poverty rates fell markedly from 2003-2014 in every country for which I have Gapminder data. So the claim is not that populism resulted in negative economic growth. The issue is that the average growth in the non-populist countries was around 1% per year higher than in the populist countries. Thus, to the populist-supporter who points to the high growth of Argentina et al as proof that populism works, the response is that growth was even higher in their non-populist neighbors and poverty is lower in them as well.

Now the unfortunate thing for drawing a clear causal interpretation from these correlations is that economic growth was also higher in the non-populist countries in the before period as well, perhaps due in part to having higher economic freedom to begin with. Growth in the freedom-preserving countries was slightly more than 1% per year higher, and that is driven predominantly by Chile. If Chile had had a more average 11-13% growth during that time period, we would be able to show more conclusively that the economic growth gap increased after populism. So, really, the claim that populism caused a lower economic growth in those countries doesn’t hold up very well – economic growth was lower in those countries before populism as well. It may well be that economic growth would have been higher in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela had they maintained or improved their respect for property rights, but the raw data doesn’t tell us that without significantly more controls and doing some proper regressions.


* – One of the problems of this exercise is that to get “before” populism, you need to go back a hundred years or so. Ah well.

How fast does populism destroy economic freedom in Latin America?

The turn of the twentieth century has seen an increase in populist government in Latin America. That populism is no friend of free markets is well known. And even if their movement against free markets if fairly quick, it is common for individuals to loose track of how fast they are loosing their economic freedoms.

There are five cases of populist governments in Latin America that can work as benchmarks for the region. In particular, we can look at the behavior of governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela for the time frames depicted in the following table.

Table 1

During this time period, populist governments failed to increase GDP per capita consistently faster than the region. The only exception is Argentina. But its fast increase in GDP is largely explained as recovery after the 2001 crisis and by consuming capital stock, not as an expansion of potential output. It is no accident that Argentina met stagflation in 2007. In the last three issues of the Economic Freedom of the World (Fraser Institute) Argentina ranks among the bottom 10 free economies in the world.

The following figure shows the fall in ranking of each country in the Economic Freedom of the World.

Figure 1

We can translate the information shown in the above into loss of ranking position per year of populist government. This is what is shown in the next table.

Table 2

This table offers a few readings:

  1. Argentina is the country that fall in the ranking of economic faster than its peers.
  2. Ecuador shows a very slow fall. This is due to two reasons: (1) Ecuador already starts from a low ranking position. (2) The last year of the index (2015) shows an improvement (without this improvement the fall is quite sharp as well.) Ecuador does not represent a case of “good populism.”

What this table is showing is that if an individual is born in any of these countries ranking 1st in economic freedom the same year a populist government takes office, then the same country will rank at the bottom of the world before he retires. In the case of Argentina, in 27.8 years the country will be at the bottom of the list, this means that by the time this individual starts to work, Argentina will already have a very repressed economy. By retiring time, this individual will have no experience of living and working in a free economy.

This numbers are not just descriptive of populism in Latin American countries. They also serve as a sort of warning for Europe and the United States, regions that have already seen some signs of populist behavior in their governments and political groups in the last few years. Populism can be emotionally attractive, but is very dangerous for our economic freedoms.