Over the last decade, researchers have turned to a surprising source to better understand the mechanisms behind long-term development. Historical calamities like the Black Death and the Taiping Rebellion were accompanied by tragic consequences, often fracturing the status quo. But they also allowed societies to build new foundations, and a growing body of research is examining these episodes for clues to deal with current development challenges.
"Disastrous events from the past sometimes unexpectedly create long-term benefits," said Aaditya Mattoo, Research Manager for Trade and International Integration at the World Bank. "These episodes are worth studying to better understand the historical paths that can lead to prosperity, especially for countries currently suffering from large-scale violence and disease."
At a recent Policy Research Talk, World Bank economist Lixin Colin Xu provided a sweeping account of the history of wars, rebellions, and epidemics from the perspective of economics and political economy. According to Xu, history holds many lessons about the emergence of three key features of society that are essential for prosperity: the development of state capacity, the emergence of constraints on executive power, and demographic transition.
State capacity—especially the ability of governments to raise taxes—is one of the fundamental prerequisites for long-term development. Xu cited research on the divergence between China and Japan in the 19th century to illustrate this point. China and Japan shared many characteristics in the mid-19th century, including similar political institutions, a reliance on land taxes, and a similar income level. Yet, China’s Qing Dynasty underwent a fiscal contraction from 1750 onward that left it vulnerable to growing threats from Western colonial powers. Over the same period, Japan grew its tax revenues, which better enabled it to modernize and grow during the Meiji Restoration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
But Xu was quick to explain that the ability of a government to effectively raise taxes is not enough to guarantee development. This capacity needs to be paired with constraints on executive powers that lead to taxes being invested in public goods like roads and schools.