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History without evidence: Latin American inequality since 1491

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  • Williamson, Jeffrey G.
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    Abstract

    Most analysts of the modern Latin American economy hold to a pessimistic belief in historical persistence - they believe that Latin America has always had very high levels of inequality, suggesting it will be hard for modern social policy to create a more egalitarian society. This paper argues that this conclusion is not supported by what little evidence we have. The persistence view is based on an historical literature which has made little or no effort to be comparative. Modern analysts see a more unequal Latin America compared with Asia and the rich post-industrial nations and then assume that this must always have been true. Indeed, some have argued that high inequality appeared very early in the post-conquest Americas, and that this fact supported rent-seeking and anti-growth institutions which help explain the disappointing growth performance we observe there even today. This paper argues to the contrary. Compared with the rest of the world, inequality was not high in pre-conquest 1491, nor was it high in the postconquest decades following 1492. Indeed, it was not even high in the mid-19th century just prior Latin America's belle époque. It only became high thereafter. Historical persistence in Latin American inequality is a myth. --

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    Bibliographic Info

    Paper provided by University of Goettingen, Department of Economics in its series Center for European, Governance and Economic Development Research Discussion Papers with number 81.

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    Date of creation: 2009
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    Handle: RePEc:zbw:cegedp:81

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    Related research

    Keywords: Inequality; development; Latin America;

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    1. Martin Ravallion & Shaohua Chen & Prem Sangraula, 2007. "New Evidence on the Urbanization of Global Poverty," Population and Development Review, The Population Council, Inc., The Population Council, Inc., vol. 33(4), pages 667-701.
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    3. Branko Milanovic & Peter H. Lindert & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2007. "Measuring Ancient Inequality," NBER Working Papers 13550, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Hoffman, Philip T. & Jacks, David S. & Levin, Patricia A. & Lindert, Peter H., 2002. "Real Inequality In Europe Since 1500," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge University Press, vol. 62(02), pages 322-355, June.
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    6. Bates, Robert H. & Coatsworth, John H. & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 2007. "Lost Decades: Postindependence Performance in Latin America and Africa," Scholarly Articles 12211559, Harvard University Department of Economics.
    7. Clingingsmith, David & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 2008. "Deindustrialization in 18th and 19th century India: Mughal decline, climate shocks and British industrial ascent," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, Elsevier, vol. 45(3), pages 209-234, July.
    8. Luis Bertola & Cecilia Castelnovo & Javier Rodriguez & Henry Willebald, 2008. "Income distribution in the Latin American Southern Cone during the first globalization boom, ca: 1870-1920," Working Papers in Economic History wp08-05, Universidad Carlos III, Departamento de Historia Económica e Instituciones.
    9. A. J. H. Latham & Larry Neal, 1983. "The International Market in Rice and Wheat, 1868-1914," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, Economic History Society, vol. 36(2), pages 260-280, 05.
    10. Kenneth L. Sokoloff & Stanley L. Engerman, 2000. "Institutions, Factor Endowments, and Paths of Development in the New World," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, American Economic Association, vol. 14(3), pages 217-232, Summer.
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    As found on the RePEc Biblio, the curated bibliography for Economics:
    1. > Economic History > Regional Economic History > Latin American Economic History
    2. > Economic History > Long-term Inequality and Mobility
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    Cited by:
    1. Aldo Musacchio & André Carlos Martínez Fritscher & Martina Viarengo, 2010. "Colonial Institutions, Trade Shocks, and the Diffusion of Elementary Education in Brazil, 1889-1930," Harvard Business School Working Papers, Harvard Business School 10-075, Harvard Business School, revised Dec 2012.
    2. Popov, V., 2012. "Why the West got Rich Before Other Countries and Why China is Catching Up With the West Today? New Answer to the Old Question," Journal of the New Economic Association, New Economic Association, New Economic Association, vol. 15(3), pages 35-64.

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