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The Lion’s Share: Inequality and the Rise of the Fiscal State in Preindustrial Europe

Author(s):Alfani, Guido
Di Tullio, Matteo
Reviewer(s):Pezzolo, Luciano

Published by EH.Net (March 2020)

Guido Alfani and Matteo Di Tullio, The Lion’s Share: Inequality and the Rise of the Fiscal State in Preindustrial Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xii + 232 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-108-447621-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Luciano Pezzolo, Department of Humanities, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

 
Since protesters gathered in Zuccotti Park in New York in 2011 inequality has been one of the most debated issues at both the academic and the popular level. Thomas Piketty’s (2013) work, largely relying on tax data, has provided an apparently solid base to the claim that in the capitalist world inequality is the usual state of affairs. Economic historians have been concerned with this problem too. Following Simon Kuznets’ work (1955), Jeffrey Williamson and Peter Lindert (1976) dealt with American inequality over three centuries, and Jan Luiten van Zanden (1995) wrote a pioneering essay on inequality in early modern western Europe.

The work of Guido Alfani, professor at the Bocconi University of Milan, and Matteo Di Tullio, researcher at the University of Pavia, adds to this literature by analyzing the process of economic inequality in the Republic of Venice between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. To this aim, fiscal sources (132 tax registers compiled between 1409 and 1801), provide the fundamental material for measuring the degree of inequality in both urban and rural environments. The estimi (tax registers) were drafted by local authorities in order to distribute direct taxes on both land properties and “heads.” The ample sample on which the authors rely counts five cities, thirteen towns and villages and eight rural districts, which are located in the central part of Veneto and in the territory of Bergamo.

The structure of state revenues, which is the subject of chapter one, was primarily made up of duties on consumption and transactions, while direct taxation provided about one fifth of revenues. Like any tax system, the Venetian one also reflected institutional and power relations: taxpayers, as far as direct taxation was concerned, were divided into city dwellers, inhabitants of the contado (the rural district around the main cities), ecclesiastics, Venetians, and privileged households and communities. These categories were often inscribed in specific estimi and consequently it is difficult to include the entire body of taxpayers in the dataset.

Chapter two addresses the issue of the number of rich and poor in Venetian society. The authors define poor as a household or individual whose assessed wealth is below 25 percent of the median; the rich are at least ten times above the median wealth. The data confirm that the presence of poor people tends to grow throughout the modern age up to 1800, and that their number is larger in the city than in the countryside. As for the rich, they also tend to grow. In short, the Venetian mainland witnessed an evident process of social polarization over the period here considered.

The same phenomenon emerges in chapter three, dedicated to economic inequality in the long run. During the early modern age, the general trend was towards inequality in almost all the areas examined. The data show that this process was more evident in the countryside than in the urban world, where average household wealth was higher. The plague of 1630 smoothed the trend for a short period, but it resumed shortly afterwards.

The fourth and final chapter considers the redistributive effects of taxation, seen as one of the main causes of the growing inequality in the Venetian state. Most (70-80 percent) of state revenue came from indirect taxes, while direct taxation covered the rest. The authors estimate that the impact of this tax structure on the various sections of the population was proportionally more disadvantageous for the poorer classes than for the richer ones. The regressive nature of taxation, common to most of the old regime states, would therefore have favored the process of inequality. This phenomenon was also accentuated by public spending, which was largely earmarked to the defense and debt service, while over the last two centuries of the Republic social spending accounted as low as 0.2-1.3 percent of the budget. It must be considered, however, that social spending (assistance to the poor and orphans, education, public health) was mostly managed by local institutions.

The chapter also offers a wide and interesting comparison with other Italian states (Tuscany, Piedmont, Kingdom of Naples), the Netherlands and the Southern Low Countries. All the cases considered show, despite different phases of growth and stagnation, a common growing inequality over the modern age. The main culprit is identified by the authors in the fiscal-military state, and the consequent fiscal and economic inequality it generated. The emergence of what was once called the absolute state has been the subject of much debate among scholars, but no one has so far emphasized the effects it produced in terms of social (in)equality. The merit of this book is that it has tackled the problem by analyzing a vast area for three centuries. The concept of the fiscal-military state, however, does not always seem to be useful to explain the inequalities between different countries. Most states of the early modern age were more a mosaic of privileges and immunities than that mythical monolithic organism that was built by nineteenth century historiography. It is problematic, for example, to identify in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany the typical features of an aggressive state taxation system that manages to affect the distribution of the wealth of its subjects.

If the state of the old regime seems unable to significantly change the level of inequality of the population, perhaps it is useful to widen our gaze to the market and its mechanism. Recent models developed by statistical physicists (Li, Boghosian and Li, 2019) have hypothesized that a simple exchange, even among equal actors, generates a tiny inequality. Consequently, the growth of transactions is to favor the increasing accumulation of wealth much to the benefit of a small group. It is then likely that the dynamics of inequality in the past could be considered more as a “natural” phenomenon, inherent in the functioning of capitalist markets, than the effect of factors such as relatively weak governments as economic actors.

References:

Kuznets, Simon (1955). “Economic Growth and Income Inequality,” American Economic Review, 45, 1-28.

Li Jie, Boghosian Bruce, and Li Chengli (2019). “The Affine Wealth Model: An Agent Based Model of Asset Exchange that Allows for Negative-wealth Agents and its Empirical Validation,” Physica A: A Statistical Mechanics and its Application, 516, 423-42.

Lindert, Peter and Williamson, Jeffrey (1976). Three Centuries of American Inequality. Madison: University of Wisconsin, Madison Institute for Research on Poverty.

Piketty, Thomas (2013). Le capital au XXIe siècle. Paris: Le Seuil.

Van Zanden, Jan Luiten (1995). “Tracing the Beginning of the Kuznets Curve: Western Europe during the Early Modern Period,” Economic History Review, 48, 643-64.

 
Luciano Pezzolo is Professor of Early Modern History at the Department of Humanities of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. His main fields of research are financial and military history of late medieval and early modern Italy, on which a book, entitled Mars and Pluto, is to be published by Oxford University Press.

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Income and Wealth
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):Medieval
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century