I should learn more history! 
Why Nations Fail (further notes from Acemoglu and Robinson's)
#path_dependence #institutional_theory #historical_trajectory

According to the authors, the "fate" of European economies was decided as early as a precise year in the 14th century: the Black Death plague of 1347. Now that is something that history teachers failed to tell us (at least mine had no idea about "applied history").

The plague hit and quickly wiped out about half the English population. Such catastrophes can have a huge effect on the institutions of society. Perhaps understandably, scores of people went mad. Boccaccio noted that “some maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, gratify all one’s cravings whenever the opportunity offered, and shrug the thing off as an enormous joke … and this explains why those women who recovered were possibly less chaste in the period that followed.” Yet the plague also had a socially, economically, and politically transformative impact on medieval European societies.

(...) The massive scarcity of labor created by the plague shook the foundations of the feudal order. It encouraged peasants to demand that things change. At Eynsham Abbey, for example, the peasants demanded that many of the fines and unpaid labor be reduced. They got what they wanted, and their new contract began with the assertion “At the time of the mortality or pestilence, which occurred in 1349, scarcely two tenants remained in the manor, and they expressed their intention of leaving unless Brother Nicholas of Upton, then abbot and lord of the manor, made a new agreement with them.” He did.

What happened at Eynsham happened everywhere. Peasants started to free themselves from compulsory labor services and many obligations to their lords. Wages started to rise.

The attempt by the English state to stop the changes of institutions and wages that came in the wake of the Black Death didn’t work. In 1381 the Peasants’ Revolt broke out, and the rebels, under the leadership of Wat Tyler, even captured most of London. Though they were ultimately defeated, and Tyler was executed, there were no more attempts to enforce the Statute of Laborers. Feudal labor services dwindled away, an inclusive labor market began to emerge in England, and wages rose.

The plague seems to have hit most of the world, and everywhere a similar fraction of the population perished. Thus the demographic impact in Eastern Europe was the same as in England and Western Europe. The social and economic forces at play were also the same. Labor was scarce and people demanded greater freedoms. But in the East, a more powerful contradictory logic was at work. Fewer people meant higher wages in an inclusive labor market. But this gave lords a greater incentive to keep the labor market extractive and the peasants servile. In England this motivation had been in play, too, as reflected in the Statute of Laborers. But workers had sufficient power that they got their way. Not so in Eastern Europe. After the plague, Eastern landlords started to take over large tracts of land and expand their holdings, which were already larger than those in Western Europe. Towns were weaker and less populous, and rather than becoming freer, workers began to see their already existing freedoms encroached on.

The effects became especially clear after 1500, when Western Europe began to demand the agricultural goods, such as wheat, rye, and livestock, produced in the East. Eighty percent of the imports of rye into Amsterdam came from the Elbe, Vistula, and Oder river valleys. Soon half of the Netherlands’ booming trade was with Eastern Europe. As Western demand expanded, Eastern landlords ratcheted up their control over the labor force to expand their supply. It was to be called the Second Serfdom, distinct and more intense than its original form of the early Middle Ages. Lords increased the taxes they levied on their tenants’ own plots and took half of the gross output. In Korczyn, Poland, all work for the lord in 1533 was paid. But by 1600 nearly half was unpaid forced labor. In 1500, workers in Mecklenberg, in eastern Germany, owed only a few days’ unpaid labor services a year. By 1550 it was one day a week, and by 1600, three days per week. Workers’ children had to work for the lord for free for several years. In Hungary, landlords took complete control of the land in 1514, legislating one day a week of unpaid labor services for each worker. In 1550 this was raised to two days per week. By the end of the century, it was three days. Serfs subject to these rules made up 90 percent of the rural population by this time.

Though in 1346 there were few differences between Western and Eastern Europe in terms of political and economic institutions, by 1600 they were worlds apart. In the West, workers were free of feudal dues, fines, and regulations and were becoming a key part of a booming market economy. In the East, they were also involved in such an economy, but as coerced serfs growing the food and agricultural goods demanded in the West. It was a market economy, but not an inclusive one. This institutional divergence was the result of a situation where the differences between these areas initially seemed very small: in the East, lords were a little better organized; they had slightly more rights and more consolidated landholdings. Towns were weaker and smaller, peasants less organized. In the grand scheme of history, these were small differences. Yet these small differences between the East and the West became very consequential for the lives of their populations and for the future path of institutional development when the feudal order was shaken up by the Black Death. The Black Death is a vivid example of a critical juncture, a major event or confluence of factors disrupting the existing economic or political balance in society.

A critical juncture is a double-edged sword that can cause a sharp turn in the trajectory of a nation. On the one hand it can open the way for breaking the cycle of extractive institutions and enable more inclusive ones to emerge, as in England. Or it can intensify the emergence of extractive institutions, as was the case with the Second Serfdom in Eastern Europe.

Understanding how history and critical junctures shape the path of economic and political institutions enables us to have a more complete theory of the origins of differences in poverty and prosperity. In addition, it enables us to account for the lay of the land today and why some nations make the transition to inclusive economic and political institutions while others do not.


(...) The kingdom of Poland-Lithuania, for example, was ruled by an elite class called the Szlachta, who were so powerful they had even introduced elections for kings. This was not absolute rule as in France under Louis XIV, the Sun King, but absolutism of an elite, extractive political institutions all the same. The Szlachta ruled over a mostly rural society dominated by serfs, who had no freedom of movement or economic opportunities. Farther east, the Russian emperor Peter the Great was also consolidating an absolutism far more intense and extractive than even Louis XIV could manage. [The map] provides one simple way of seeing the extent of the divergence between Western and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It plots whether or not a country still had serfdom in 1800. Countries that appear dark did; those that are light did not. Eastern Europe is dark; Western Europe is light.

Yet the institutions of Western Europe had not always been so different from those in the East. They began, as we saw earlier, to diverge in the fourteenth century when the Black Death hit in 1346. There were small differences between political and economic institutions in Western and Eastern Europe. England and Hungary were even ruled by members of the same family, the Angevins. The more important institutional differences that emerged after the Black Death then created the background upon which the more significant divergence between the East and the West would play out during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.

map: Serfdom in Europe in 1800
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