Friday, August 22, 2008

The rise of Europe, the standstill of Asia

One of the big challenges of Economic history is to explain why, a thousand years ago, Asia, and in particular China, suddenly stagnated and why in the following centuries Europe started growing, leading eventually to the Industrial Revolution before any other continent. Of particular interest here is that even when you abstract from the leaders of the Industrial Revolution and look at, say, Bulgaria, Norway and Portugal, they have done much better than the rest of the world. Why?

Some of the standard answers have been that this is due to 1) cultural aspects, but within the time line we are talking about here, this is endogenous; 2) chance events (steam engine, proximity of coal), but European countries away from such events also grew faster than Asian ones; 3) resource grab from America, but would Asia really have benefited from such manna?

Cem Karayalçin argues that this divergence in growth is due to the political competition in Europe. States were fragmented and small, and people could escape there policies by migrating. This was impossible in Asia once the Ottoman, Chinese and Mughal empires were created. The latter essentially had monopoly power over fiscal matters, and thus could exploit their trapped population without further harm to the rulers. Contrast this with Europe, where sovereigns had to be careful not to tax too much, to provide services for the taxes and even had to dole out incentives to attract farmers.

A particularly important aspect of this competitive environment in Europe was that sovereigns were careful to give sufficient guarantees for ownership, that is, not expropriate at will. This made the accumulation of capital favorable. The same cannot be said for Asian empires, where for example the 122 top ranking nobles received 1/8 of the national product of India at the time of Akbar. Bequests were typically confiscated. In the Ottoman empire, wealthy traders would be stripped of their assets if not killed. It is difficult to muster any aggregate savings necessary for capital accumulation in such a hostile environment.

Karayalçin's paper has two parts: one theoretical that demonstrates his points, the other historical where he justifies the assumptions underlying his results, for example evidence on mobility in Europe since medieval times, the lack thereof in the Asian empires, and the differences in taxation burdens. This paper makes Economic history exciting.


VIlfredo said...

While I can be convince that proper enforcement of ownership is crucial for development, I am not convinced about the tax competition claim. After all, Europeans waged a lot of costly wars and destructed each other on a regular basis. This would not be the case in a large empire.

Trapped in OK said...

All this literature on long term growth and its impediments seems rather anecdotal to me. Lost of nice stories, but unless you can back this up with hard data and estimate a model, it has not much value.