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Five Centuries of Latin American Inequality

  • Jeffrey G. Williamson

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.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 15305.

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Date of creation: Aug 2009
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Publication status: published as *“Five Centuries of Latin American Inequality,” Journal of Iberian and Latin American Economic History 28, 2 (September 2010): 227-252.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:15305
Note: DAE
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  1. Lopez , J. Humberto & Perry, Guillermo, 2008. "Inequality in Latin America : determinants and consequences," Policy Research Working Paper Series 4504, The World Bank.
  2. 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, vol. 14(3), pages 217-232, Summer.
  3. Abhijit Banerjee & Lakshmi Iyer, 2010. "History Institutions and Economic Performance: The Legacy of Colonial Land Tenure Systems in India," Working Papers id:2811, eSocialSciences.
  4. Studer, Roman, 2008. "India and the Great Divergence: Assessing the Efficiency of Grain Markets in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century India," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 68(02), pages 393-437, June.
  5. Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson, 2006. "De Facto Political Power and Institutional Persistence," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 96(2), pages 325-330, May.
  6. Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2008. "Globalization and the Great Divergence: Terms of Trade Booms and Volatility in the Poor Periphery 1782-1913," Working Papers 08-07, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC).
  7. Martin Ravallion & Shaohua Chen & Prem Sangraula, 2007. "New Evidence on the Urbanization of Global Poverty," Population and Development Review, The Population Council, Inc., vol. 33(4), pages 667-701.
  8. 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, vol. 45(3), pages 209-234, July.
  9. Claudia Goldin & Robert A. Margo, 1991. "The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid- Century," NBER Working Papers 3817, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  10. Jeffrey G. Williamson & Branko Milanovic & Peter H. Lindert, 2008. "Measuring Ancient Inequality," Working Papers 08-06, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC).
  11. Massimo Livi-Bacci, 2006. "The Depopulation of Hispanic America after the Conquest," Population and Development Review, The Population Council, Inc., vol. 32(2), pages 199-232.
  12. Campante, Filipe & Do, Quoc-Anh, 2007. "Inequality, Redistribution, and Population," Working Paper Series rwp07-046, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  13. Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1999. "Real wages, inequality and globalization in latin america before 1940," Revista de Historia Económica, Cambridge University Press, vol. 17(S1), pages 101-142, March.
  14. Williamson, Jeffrey G., 2002. "Land, Labor, And Globalization In The Third World, 1870 1940," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 62(01), pages 55-85, March.
  15. Miriam Bruhn & Francisco A. Gallego, 2012. "Good, Bad, and Ugly Colonial Activities: Do They Matter for Economic Development?," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 94(2), pages 433-461, May.
  16. Jeffrey G. Williamson, 2006. "Globalization and the Poor Periphery before 1950," MIT Press Books, The MIT Press, edition 1, volume 1, number 0262232502, June.
  17. A. J. H. Latham & Larry Neal, 1983. "The International Market in Rice and Wheat, 1868-1914," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 36(2), pages 260-280, 05.
  18. Alwyn Young, 2005. "The Gift of the Dying: The Tragedy of Aids and the Welfare of Future African Generations," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, MIT Press, vol. 120(2), pages 423-466, May.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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, vol. 62(02), pages 322-355, June.
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