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History without Evidence: Latin American Inequality since 1491

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  • Jeffrey G. Williamson

    (Harvard University and University of Wisconsin)

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 post-conquest 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.

Suggested Citation

  • Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2009. "History without Evidence: Latin American Inequality since 1491," Courant Research Centre: Poverty, Equity and Growth - Discussion Papers 3, Courant Research Centre PEG.
  • Handle: RePEc:got:gotcrc:003
    as

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    File URL: http://www2.vwl.wiso.uni-goettingen.de/courant-papers/CRC-PEG_DP_3.pdf
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Milanovic, Branko & Lindert, Peter & Williamson, Jeffrey, 2007. "Measuring Ancient Inequality," MPRA Paper 5388, University Library of Munich, Germany.
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    4. Lindert, Peter H. & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1982. "Revising England's social tables 1688-1812," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 19(4), pages 385-408, October.
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    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

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    Cited by:

    1. Jomo, K. & Popov, V., 2016. "Long-Term Trends in Income Distribution," Journal of the New Economic Association, New Economic Association, vol. 31(3), pages 146-160.
    2. Serrano, Joaquín & Benzaquén, Ivana, 2017. "La frontera de posibilidades de desigualdad en América Latina," El Trimestre Económico, Fondo de Cultura Económica, vol. 0(334), pages .427-461, abril-jun.
    3. André Martínez-Fritscher & Aldo Musacchio & Martina Viarengo, 2010. "The Great Leap Forward: The Political Economy Of Education In Brazil, 1889-1930," Working Papers 03-2010, Universidade de São Paulo, Faculdade de Economia, Administração e Contabilidade de Ribeirão Preto.
    4. Musacchio, Aldo & Fritscher, André Martínez & Viarengo, Martina, 2014. "Colonial Institutions, Trade Shocks, and the Diffusion of Elementary Education in Brazil, 1889–1930," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 74(03), pages 730-766, September.
    5. Summerhill, William, 2010. "Colonial Institutions, Slavery, Inequality, and Development: Evidence from São Paulo, Brazil," MPRA Paper 22162, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    6. Guido Alfani & Francesco Ammannati, 2014. "Economic inequality and poverty in the very long run: The case of the Florentine State," Working Papers 070, "Carlo F. Dondena" Centre for Research on Social Dynamics (DONDENA), Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi.
    7. repec:spr:cliomt:v:11:y:2017:i:3:d:10.1007_s11698-016-0152-7 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. 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, vol. 15(3), pages 35-64.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    Inequality; Development; Latin America;

    JEL classification:

    • N16 - Economic History - - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics; Industrial Structure; Growth; Fluctuations - - - Latin America; Caribbean
    • N36 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy - - - Latin America; Caribbean
    • O15 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economic Development - - - Economic Development: Human Resources; Human Development; Income Distribution; Migration
    • D3 - Microeconomics - - Distribution

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