Reversal of fortune and settlement colonies

Acemoglu and others have discussed the concept of reversal of fortune, the idea that the areas with high income per capita around the 1500s (basically the areas colonized by Europeans in the Americas and Asia) became relatively poor, and vice versa. The idea is that there is a negative relationship between economic prosperity in 1500 and income per capita today. They suggest that the type of settlement and the institutions built by colonizers explain the apparent paradox.

The idea is that in settlement colonies, were more equalitarian societies were built, institutions protected property rights and led to higher investment and growth (à la North). They use the mortality rates associated to a particular region as an instrument for the type of settlement and institutions built by European colonizers. High mortality rates imply low European population density, more indigenous or African slaves, and more unequal institutions, with less protection of property rights.

It is a clever argument, no doubt (put forward by Engerman and Sokoloff, in fact), and more importantly a creative use of the notion of settlement colonies.* I have several problems with it, nonetheless. It is far from clear that equality is really connected to growth, and that causality runs from Western type property rights to growth, rather than vice-versa. I tend to spend quite a bit of time on this in my Latin American History classes. There are also significant problems with Engerman and Sokoloff's notion that institutions responded to factor endowments [fundamentally the idea that in capital-abundant/labor-scarce societies, wages were high leading to technological development; yes the capital debates again, but I'll leave this for another time].

Recently I found the graph below in Angus Maddison's Contours of the World Economy 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macro-Economic History.
The graph shows that Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean were the high income regions, while Northern Europe was relatively poor. In this case, in fact, disease is not a good guide for the type of institutions built in the different regions. Other than the Italian Peninsula, it is the Nile Valley, i.e. Egypt, that had the highest income per capita during the Roman Empire. The Reversal of Fortune is also evident in this case, with France having a significantly higher income per capita than Egypt, for example. It is hard, however, to think that mortality rates associated to tropical diseases (with Southern Europe and North Africa closer to the Tropics) would have something to do with this particular reversal of fortune.

It was the region of older agricultural settlement, more urbanized, more directly connected with Eastern trade, the Eastern Mediterranean part of the of the Empire that was more developed, and that survived for a longer period (until the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453). The reasons for the reversal of fortune in this case, are connected to the rise of the Atlantic economy, related to the Great Discoveries, and the expansion of the African route to Asia. If you ask me, more relevant than the incentives provided by property rights in explaining the Portuguese (and then Dutch and British) search for the alternative routes to Asia, is the rising and changing patterns of demand in Western Europe (and success is based on the naval-military advantage, Guns and Sails, Cipolla would say). But for our purposes here it is only relevant to note that mortality rates no longer seem a relevant instrument for the types of institutions.

* Moses Finley suggests that the idea of settlement versus exploitation colonies (note that Acemoglu et al., avoid the use of the term colonies of exploitation referring only to the settlement ones) was originally developed by Wilhelm Roscher of the German Historical School and later by Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, a liberal (in the European sense of the word) French economist.

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