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Political Order and Inequality: Their Foundations and Their Consequences for Human Welfare

Author(s):Boix, Carles
Reviewer(s):Clay, Karen

Published by EH.Net (November 2015)

Carles Boix, Political Order and Inequality: Their Foundations and Their Consequences for Human Welfare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. xii + 311 pp. $65 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-08943-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Karen Clay, Department of Economics, Carnegie Mellon University.

Anyone who has read Acemoglu and Robinson’s Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty or North, Wallis and Weingast’s Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History or Hoffman’s Why Did Europe Conquer the World? or Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy or Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress or similar books will want to consider buying Political Order and Inequality: Their Foundations and Their Consequences for Human Welfare.  The book, written by Carles Boix (the Robert Garrett Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University), is very much in the spirit of these books.  It tackles a huge and very important question, provides a theoretical framework, and offers selected empirical evidence to support the argument.

One important way in which this book differs from the economics literature, particularly the work on institutions, involves the direction of causality.   Boix argues that technological change and economic growth preceded the formation of the state.  Political order, growth, and inequality were shaped by economic and military factors.  While institutions play a role in this framework, it is a much more limited role than in the work of some other authors.  Boix links his framework loosely to Marx and to endogenous growth models in the sense that economic change takes place through an endogenous process. This allows Boix to offer a theory that can accommodate political and institutional change.

The framework can be thought of as beginning in an initial hunter-gather world. Individuals led relatively equal lives in small cooperative bands that focused on providing enough food for the group.  The price of growth is then inequality.  And inequality brings about, in turn, the breakdown of cooperation that exists in the “state of nature.”  One example of a technological change that caused inequality and change was plant domestication.  A limited number places were suited to initial domestication, and in those places, greater productivity led to inequality and political change.  Out of this emerged one of two types of states.  The majority of early institutions were monarchical, but some were republican or mixed.  The type that emerged depended on military technology.  Monarchies tended to arise when technologies such as horses gave advantages to looters.  Republics tended to arise when technologies such as navies gave advantages to producers. Inequality is then jointly determined by factor endowments and political institutions and is higher under monarchies than republics. Both types of political institutions tended to stifle innovation in order to maintain the status quo.

Boix attributes the rise of the West to a combination of factors. One was endogenous technical change driven by population growth. Urbanization brought together the elements necessary for innovation and endogenous growth. A second was the political fragmentation of Europe.  In a number of areas of Western European, producers were able to fend off looters or the landed elites intermarried and invested in the industrial elites.  A third was a military revolution that allowed some urban centers to defend themselves and continue the process of growth. War-related technologies allowed some groups of producers to prevent military conquest and eradication of their gains.  These war-related technologies included pikes, gunpowder, and navies. These three factors eventually led to the Industrial Revolution. Other regions had some of the same elements, notably China, but in the end growth was stifled.

The empirical evidence is of necessity selected, because an exhaustive discussion of the evidence would take decades to write and many volumes to publish.  Boix also aims to tell a causal story, which is very much in line with analysis by economists.  What sorts of evidence does Boix provide?  Chapter 1 draws on evidence from the Ethnographic Atlas on social structures, inequality, and political life. Chapter 3 returns to the Ethnographic Atlas with a focus on economic activity.  Here Boix provides some evidence that economic activity drives social and institutional outcomes.  In particular he presents graphs showing the relationship between early transition to agriculture and early state formation.  Chapter 4 draws on data on parliamentary meetings, real wages and population densities in Europe. Chapter 5 investigates economic and political inequality using height data.  Whether one finds this useful will depend on one’s view of height data and the nature of the comparisons across groups. Chapter 6 examines evidence on urbanization, politics, income and wealth.

Political Order and Inequality: Their Foundations and Their Consequences for Human Welfare is an important book.  It is by no means the last word regarding the big historical questions such as why some nations are rich and others poor and why the Industrial Revolution happened in Europe.  It does, however, require economists to carefully consider the causal structure of their arguments and the importance of political institutions.  Perspectives may differ on whether Boix has the story right.  But anyone writing in this area needs to read Boix, along with books listed in the first sentence of this review, and offer an interpretation that fits all of the empirical evidence advanced thus far.

Karen Clay’s publications include “Adapting to Climate Change: Evidence from Long-Run Changes in the Temperature-Mortality Relationship in the 20th Century United States”  (with Barreca, Deschenes, Greenstone, and Shapiro – forthcoming in the Journal of Political Economy) and The Evolution of a Nation: How Geography and Law Shaped the American States (with Daniel Berkowitz).

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):General or Comparative