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The Paradox of Power: Understanding Fiscal Capacity in Imperial China and Absolutist Regimes

Author

Listed:
  • Jared Rubin

    () (Chapman University)

  • Debin Ma

    () (London School of Economics)

Abstract

Tax extraction in Qing China was low relative to Western Europe. It is not obvious why: China was much more absolutist and had stronger rights over property and people. Why did the Chinese not convert their absolute power into revenue? We propose a model, supported by historical evidence, which suggests that i) the center could not ask its tax collecting agents to levy high taxes because it would incentivize agents to overtax the peasantry; ii) the center could not pay agents high wages in return for high taxes because the center had no mechanism to commit to refrain from confiscating the agent’s resources in times of crisis. A solution to this problem was to offer agents a low wage and ask for low taxes while allowing agents to take extra, unmonitored taxes from the peasantry. This solution only worked because of China’s weak administrative capacity due its size and poor monitoring technology. This analysis suggests that low investment in administrative capacity can be an optimal solution for an absolutist ruler since it substitutes for a credible commitment to refrain from confiscation. Our study carries implications for state capacity beyond Imperial China.

Suggested Citation

  • Jared Rubin & Debin Ma, 2017. "The Paradox of Power: Understanding Fiscal Capacity in Imperial China and Absolutist Regimes," Working Papers 17-02, Chapman University, Economic Science Institute.
  • Handle: RePEc:chu:wpaper:17-02
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
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    Cited by:

    1. Grintser, Nikolai (Гринцер, Николай), 2017. "Intellectual Discussions About Language, Literature and Society in Athenian Culture 5th Century BC
      [Интеллектуальные дискуссии о языке, литературе и обществе в афинской культуре v в. до н.э]
      ," Working Papers 051729, Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration.
    2. repec:eee:jeborg:v:155:y:2018:i:c:p:178-204 is not listed on IDEAS
    3. Xue, Melanie Meng & Koyama, Mark, 2018. "Autocratic Rule and Social Capital: Evidence from Imperial China," MPRA Paper 84249, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    4. Koyama, Mark & Moriguchi, Chiaki & Sng, Tuan-Hwee, 2018. "Geopolitics and Asia’s little divergence: State building in China and Japan after 1850," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 155(C), pages 178-204.
    5. Murat Iyigun & Jared Rubin, 2017. "The Ideological Roots of Institutional Change," Working Papers 17-06, Chapman University, Economic Science Institute.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    administrative capacity; fiscal capacity; state capacity; principal-agent problem; monitoring; credible commitment; absolutism; limited government; taxation; China; Europe; Qing Empire;

    JEL classification:

    • N45 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation - - - Asia including Middle East
    • N43 - Economic History - - Government, War, Law, International Relations, and Regulation - - - Europe: Pre-1913
    • H20 - Public Economics - - Taxation, Subsidies, and Revenue - - - General
    • P48 - Economic Systems - - Other Economic Systems - - - Political Economy; Legal Institutions; Property Rights; Natural Resources; Energy; Environment; Regional Studies
    • P51 - Economic Systems - - Comparative Economic Systems - - - Comparative Analysis of Economic Systems

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