Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Napoleonic Reforms and Future Economic Growth

The Consequences of Radical Reform: the French Revolution is a 2009 paper by economist Daron Acemoglu and three colleagues.

The French Revolution of 1789 had a momentous impact on neighboring countries. The French Revolutionary armies during the 1790s and later under Napoleon invaded and controlled large parts of Europe. Together with invasion came various radical institutional changes. French invasion removed the legal and economic barriers that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law. The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion. Our interpretation is that the Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth. The evidence does not provide any support for several other views, most notably, that evolved institutions are inherently superior to those 'designed'; that institutions must be 'appropriate' and cannot be 'transplanted'; and that the civil code and other French institutions have adverse economic effects.
This paper has been very much discussed over the past decade, mostly at the theoretical level of designed systems imposed from the outside vs. locally evolved "organic systems." 

On the one hand, I applaud economists for seeking out actual historical data rather than just looking at models. On the other, I doubt the available data really answers this question. First, their main method of measuring economic growth is urbanization. Which is not absurd, industrialization in the 19th century (and thus economic growth) was strongly associated with the growth of cities. But it is not a very precise measure. Second, the growth they focus on took place mainly after 1850. Seems to me like a lot might have happened between Napoleon and 1850.

But let's suppose this is right, and sweeping away guilds, oligarchical elites like the Regents of Holland, and any remaining manorial dues did prepare the way for economic growth fifty years later. How did that work?

Well, for one thing, guilds set up minimum wages and other protections for industrial workers that were abolished across much of Europe. Plus they attempted to create or maintain some degree of equality among the masters, preventing anyone from getting much richer than the others. The result of abolishing the guilds was a more pure form of capitalism, with the pluses and minuses that entails.

Second, the old arrangements of European agriculture, especially gleaning rights and the existence of common pastures and woodlots, allowed very poor people to eke out a living in rural areas. What happened across much of Europe was that the loss of common lands, the right to gather firewood, and so on made it impossible for those people to hang on. In other places, like Scotland, they were evicted or bought out and had to go. So a lot of people who had been very unproductive peasants left their land and moved to places where their labor was much more productive. Sometimes that was America or Australia, but more often it was a nearby city. Therefore manufacturers who had recently been liberated from guild rules found it easier to hire workers in the places where more people had been driven off the land, leading to industrialization in Scotland and the Rhineland. The process was presumably not very happy for the peasants. Whose descendants, remember, had to wait 50 years to feel the benefits.

But my real complaint is that it makes no sense to me to isolate the arrival of the Civil Code from all the other extraordinary stuff that happened in 19th-century Europe. Nineteenth-century Europe was a quite remarkable place and time in human history. It experienced enormous population growth (250%), the industrial revolution, a very long period of comparative peace, vast social changes, etc., etc. This was in no sense a normal time in history.

Are there any normal times in history?

Anyway I am not impressed that this study says anything in general about solutions "imposed from the outside" vs. "grew up organically." The answer to that question is "it depends."


G. Verloren said...

I don't know about any other aspect of this topic, but in the matter of cities specifically, having living in both unplanned communities and planned communities, my own personal experience has led me to prefer planned ones. "Organic" growth is all well and good to a certain point, but beyond that you just get a messy, cluttered, inefficient place to live.

I suppose it depends somewhat on the -kind- of organic city growth you get in a particular location. For example, all the unplanned cities I have lived in underwent "organic" growth which was entirely dependent on the ubiquity of automobiles - but if they had developed before the advent of cars, they would have ended up being structured quite differently.

That said, I still think I'd rather live in a city that was designed from the ground up to work efficiently and effectively, rather than one which is shaped piecemeal by uncoordinated private endeavor with no regard for holistic operations, but which people simply hope will magically work out. I wouldn't want to live in a house built by 100 different people working independently of each other, and by the same token I don't want to live in a city built like that either.

David said...


Hear, hear on your objections. My own objections are much cruder. I find the sentence "There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion" utterly appalling. Tell that to Goya.

Scott Alexander (he'll always be Scott Alexander) recently referenced this article as well, and I was so horrified I actually paid the fee and subscribed so I could post a comment. Suffice it to say that my first sentence was, "Is there room for saying something that seems to me completely obvious, which is that being conquered is pretty bloody awful?" One person liked it.

That said, it would appear that liking comments is not much done on AstralCodexTen, so maybe that makes me special. Most of the comments were focused on problems of statistics and modelling. There seemed to be very little interest in the history, or in human experience.

G. Verloren said...


"There seemed to be very little interest in the history, or in human experience."

In my experience, some people simply have never experienced being human, and so can only relate to the world through the lens of hypothetical numbers and theoretical models crafted wholly from supposition and conveniently cherry-picked evidence.

I'm reminded of one of my favorite passages from Mark Twain's Life On The Mississippi (1883):

"In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year.

Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen.

There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

David said...


Very nice. I used to tell my students that the early modern scientific revolution represented the triumph of genius over common sense. In the case of the famous Copernicus-to-Newton sequence, that worked triumphantly. In the case of Acemoglu's ham-handed treatment of history, not so much.

G. Verloren said...


The issue, I feel, is that astronomy and physics are exact sciences, but history arguably isn't any kind of science at all. Genius favors the former.

It's one thing to plot the course of the stars, which move according to fixed and rational rules; it's another matter entirely to plot the course of human events, which only follow broad trends from which they frequently deviate for ludicrous reasons.

szopen said...

I lived in a planned suburbias of a small city. While for me it wasn't so bad when I was a child, now, when I experienced living in other kinds of environment, I would never return to.

szopen said...

Ach, but I wanted actually to write something else. There was an argument quite recently in my home country that whatever you can say about communists, they had one giant positive effect which then enabled Poland to grow very fast when communism was finally destroyed. Now, I do not condone the theory, but nevertheless I think it was thought-provoking. It's actually very similar to what Scott Alexander wrote (yeah, Scott Alexander sounds so much better :D). It goes like this: communists destroyed old power structures, which previously acted like giant anchors to the past, making necessary reforms difficult. Equal distribution of poverty, destruction of alternative power structures created then a ideal starting point for economy to grow.

The theory is attractive at first, despite the enormous human costs. It's based however, on one flawed assumption: that those power structures were not already destroyed by war and that bar communism and soviet intervention, everyting would simply return to pre-war relations, which is flagrantly wrong (almost all underground parties were for social reforms in 1945). Second, why would those power structures had to be destroyed in Poland, and why then Spain somehow is better economicaly than us, despite not having someone brutally murdering former elites and radically changing social structure.

But still, thought-provoking.