The Origins of Inequality

The unequal global distribution of technology and wealth between the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ began a long time ago.

We all know that the early development in agriculture and civilization began in Eurasia – but it goes back much earlier than that.

At a somewhat atemporal level, toolkits of hunter-gatherer have been shown to increase in size and complexity with latitude (Oswalt, 1976) – the driving cause seeming to be the risk of resource failure (Collard et al., 2005).

Developments necessary for cold, risk of resource failure… whatever the cause, Foley (1987) writes: “although there is a general and global technological development during the Pleistocene, it is in high latitudes that it is most marked; in parts of the tropics the artefacts remained simple.”

Hoffecker (2005) notes that evidence of “technological complexity and creativity in the archeological record is broadly coincident with and presumably related to traces of creativity in art, music, ritual, and other forms of symbolism. The pattern of modern human technology is part of a larger package of behavior (sometimes referred to as “behavioral modernity”) that emerges with the appearance of industries in Eurasia classified as Upper Paleolithic, but has deeper roots in the African Middle Stone Age.” He adds that, while traditionally the early technological innovations of Eurasians have been attributed to a need to adapt to colder climates, some of them, such as notation and musical instruments, cannot be explained in that way.

Technological adoption in 1000 BC vs modern per capita income

Comin et al. (2008) asked “Was the Wealth of Nations Determined in 1000 BC?” They collected data on the technology adoption of countries in 1000 BC, 0 AD, 1000 AD and 1500 AD, and compared to contemporary per capita income. While of course the strongest correlation was 1500 AD, there was nevertheless a definite correlation going back as far as 1000 BC. As mentioned above, this technological precociousness is in fact much older than that, preceding even agriculture.

The conditions which allowed agriculture to flourish and spread are well known from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. Following Diamond, Hibbs & Olsson (2004) quantify those types of geographical and biogeographical traits ( which, even if not as complete an explanation as Diamond would like them to be, they are certainly important) and compared them to time of transition to agriculture. Of course, these were factors that were especially beneficial for Eurasian populations. The authors also compared the scores on those initial environmental traits to modern GDP, results shown to the right.

So the inequality of regions goes back a long way. But while regional geographical/biogeographical characterisitcs are clearly of great importance in determining the prospects of the people who live there, we can’t forget the importance of the populations themselves. In other words: sometimes it is the population that matters, not the region.

This is best illustrated in events over the last 500 years. By 1500 AD, there was a quite a bit of disparity in terms of wealth, technology, and social organization between world populations.

[In fact, by that point people had even become, to some degree, more biologically adapted to their own environment – ie. Eurasians had immunities to the diseases that plagued their cities, Andean and Tibetan peoples had adapted to their high altitudes, Inuit to the cold Arctic environment, Africans to the tropical disease burden, etc. etc. These factors themselves played an important role in the ability of modern groups to succeed in different environments. Europeans had much difficulty in governing, let alone settling, tropical nations due to disease, whereas they flourished in more temperate colonies – especially those, like in the Americas, where the natives helpfully died off in the millions due to lack of immunity to Eurasian diseases, and Europeans could replace them fairly quickly, before they had time to rebound. The point of this aside is that, while over a large time scale environment may shape human societies, over a shorter time scale, and with repercussions that can have great long term consequences, the specific populations involved are of great importance – Europeans came to replace the populations in some parts of the world, and not in other parts, often because they were suited towards some environments, and not others, biologically.]

In the same way, the long history of cultural and technological developments of some populations, and not others, needs to be understood in order to explain why two populations, though now living in the same country, or even same neighbourhood, can have such an unequal distribution of wealth, education, social pathologies, etc. It is because populations carry something with them, something that has shaped them into a certain mold by a very long history – and that other populations do not share, and can not come to share easily. In my post on the African marriage system and the high rate of STDs among blacks, I discuss another important instance of a population carrying with it behaviours that cause to have a certain pattern of STD infection, even when in a new country, next to populations that show very different patterns.

Since 1500 AD, there has been a dramatic moving of populations, illustrated by this graphic from Putterman and Weil (2010):

Putterman and Weil calculated, for each population in 1500 AD, its early developmental history in terms of how long ago it had adopted agriculture and state level organization, and then they traced the movement of these populations around the world and looked at their current level of success. They find that it is the “history of a population’s ancestors rather than the history of the place they live today [that] greatly improves the ability of those indicators to predict current GDP.” And it is correlated “both at the level of country averages and in terms of an individual’s position within a country’s income distribution.” The predicted ordering of inequality based on development history is consistently found across and within countries. The author comments that in explaining variance in today’s country incomes, the state history and agricultural transition variables can each explain about a quarter of the variance. Looking at a sample of 11 countries now containing different populations with markedly different developmental histories, the authors found that in 9 of them the population hierarchies perfectly matched with expectations, and in the other 2, they were broadly consistent with only minor differences.

Technological adoptions in 1500 AD vs modern per capita income

Like for 1000 BC, technology adoption in 1500 AD, was unsurprisingly, still correlated (but more so) to current population success (Comin et al. 2008).

As one of the authors notes in an online article, “78 percent of the difference in income today between sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe is explained by technology differences that already existed in 1500 A.D. – even BEFORE the slave trade and colonialism.” (I might note here that, by the late middle ages, the estimated per capita income was $1000 in England, which is higher than a number of African countries are now (British Economic Growth 1270-1870. 2010))

Another paper, Foa (2011), also focusses on migration since 1500 AD, but is interested in the fates of the settler colonies of non-Europeans. That is, countries that have, since 1500, become dominated demographicaly by a non-European peoples, and voluntarily so (ie. excluding forced movement via the slave trade). These settler countries include people of Chinese, Indian, and African origins. Chinese settler colonies are: Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan. Indian: Fiji, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, and Mauritius. African: Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, Cape Verde, and Equatorial Guinea.

What is important to remember about all these settler countries is that they all experienced different colonial patterns, being under British, Dutch, Chinese, French, or Portuguese control, and yet it seems to be that it “is not whether a colony was governed by a British or a Portuguese official that determines their extent of state capacity today, but rather whether such colonies were peopled by groups historically accustomed to norms of centralized political organization, capable of maintaining and reconstructing such institutions in the post-colonial era.” As such, it is the Chinese colonies that have done the best, followed by Indian, and Africans doing the least well. I will allow another word on the importance of the population to the author: “when it is argued that the postwar developmental states of Korea or Taiwan trace their origins to Japanese colonial rule, we would be well advised to keep in mind the counterfactual hypothesis, namely as to whether comparable outcomes would have attained had the Japanese not conquered neighbouring lands with similar traditions of bureaucratic development, but instead conquered lands along the Congo or Gambia rivers.”

The following table shows how countries that are now dominated by some particular ethnic settler group does on various measurements: corruption, governmental effectiveness, ‘voice and accountability’ (adherence to democratic norms), and GDP per capita.

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