There has been a recent spate of papers in the category of “history only happens once.” They generally take the form of showing that some long-ago historical event continues to reverberate in the present. Two of the best in the genre are Nathan Nunn’s (Harvard) work on the effect of the slave trade on Africa or Nico Voigtlaender (UCLA) and Hans-Joachim Voth’s (Zurich) work on the medieval origins of anti-semitic violence in Nazi Germany. I had the honor of criticizing an early version of the latter paper; the authors effectively dealt with all my complaints. Amazing work.
But sometimes it can go too far. For example, many have argued that Latin America’s extreme level of inequality has its roots in the colonial past, when my people (oh, my people, at least some of them) arrived and managed to botch everything up. Except here comes my friend and colleague Jeffrey Williamson (Harvard and UW-Madison) to point out that it isn’t true. From the abstract:
Most analysts of the modern Latin American economy have held the pessimistic belief in historical persistence — they believe that Latin America has always had very high levels of inequality, and that it’s the Iberian colonists’ fault. Thus, modern analysts see today a more unequal Latin America compared with Asia and most rich post-industrial nations and 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. The recent leveling of inequality in the region since the 1990s seems to have done little to erode that pessimism. It is important, therefore, to stress that this alleged persistence is based on an historical literature which has made little or no effort to be comparative, and it matters. Compared with the rest of the world, inequality was not high in the century following 1492, and it was not even high in the post-independence decades just prior Latin America’s belle époque and start with industrialization. It only became high during the commodity boom 1870-1913, by the end of which it had joined the rich country unequal club that included the US and the UK. Latin America only became relatively high between 1913 and the 1970s when it missed the Great Egalitarian Leveling which took place almost everywhere else. That Latin American inequality has its roots in its colonial past is a myth.
In other words, something good happened in the North Atlantic during the 20th century. (Well, good in terms of inequality: there is evidence that it took a lot of depression and war to get there.) That good thing did not happen in Latin America. This is a very different view than one which dates the region’s inequality to the 16th century ... and a much more hopeful one, I think.