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History without evidence: Latin American inequality since 1491

  • Williamson, Jeffrey G.
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    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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    File URL: http://econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/32000/1/601193652.pdf
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    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
    Contact details of provider: Postal: Platz der Göttinger Sieben 3, 37073 Göttingen
    Web page: http://www.cege.wiso.uni-goettingen.de/

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    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. Jeffrey G. Williamson & Branko Milanovic & Peter H. Lindert, 2008. "Measuring Ancient Inequality," Working Papers 08-06, Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC).
    5. 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.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
    8. Campante, Filipe & Do, Quoc-Anh, 2007. "Inequality, Redistribution, and Population," Working Paper Series rwp07-046, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
    9. 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.
    10. 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, Instituto Figuerola de Historia y Ciencias Sociales.
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