Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth write about a Cruel windfall: How wars, plagues, and urban disease propelled Europe’s rise to riches. Voigtländer and Voth explain
In a pre-modern economy, incomes typically stagnate in the long run. Malthusian regimes are characterised by strongly declining marginal returns to labour. One-off improvements in technology can temporarily raise output per head. The additional income is spent on more (surviving) children, and population grows. As a result, output per head declines, and eventually labour productivity returns to its previous level. That is why, in HG Wells' phrase, earlier generations "spent the great gifts of science as rapidly as it got them in a mere insensate multiplication of the common life" (Wells, 1905).The question therefore is How could an economy ever escape from this trap? Clearly some economies have and Europe where the first to do so. Why?
Long before growth accelerated for good in most countries, a first divergence occurred. European incomes by 1700 exceeded those in the rest of the world by a large margin. We explain the emergence of this income gap by a number of uniquely European features – an unusually high frequency of war, particularly unhealthy cities, and numerous deadly disease outbreaks.First there is a puzzle: The first divergence in worldwide incomes. Incomes in European countries by 1700 were markedly higher than they had been in 1500.
According to the figures compiled by Angus Maddison (2001), all European countries including Mediterranean ones saw income growth of 35% to 180%. Within Europe, the northwest did markedly better than the rest. English and Dutch real wages surged during the early modern period.Such a performance was exceptional. Places like India and China could not keep pace. The divergence in living standards was large.
In a Malthusian world, a divergence in living standards should be puzzling. Income gains from one-off inventions should have been temporary. Even ongoing productivity gains cannot account for the “first divergence” – TFP growth probably did not exceed 0.2%, and cannot explain the marked rise in output per capita.Voigtländer and Voth's answer to the divergence puzzle: Rising death rates and lower fertility. In a Malthusian world, incomes can increase if birth rates fall or death rates increase. Voigtländer and Voth explain,
We argue that there were three factors – which we call the “Three Horsemen of Riches” – that shifted Europe’s death schedule outwards: wars, epidemics, and urban disease. Wars were unusually frequent. Epidemics were common, with devastating consequences. Finally, cities were particularly unhealthy, with death rates there exceeding birth rates by a large margin – without in-migration, European cities before 1850 would have disappeared.The percentage of the European population affected by wars (defined as those living in areas where wars were fought) rose from a little over 10% around 1500 to 60% by the late seventeenth century. Some estimates suggest that, on average, there was a war being fought somewhere in nine out of every ten years in Europe in the early modern period.
Political fragmentation combined with religious strife after 1500 to form a potent mix that produced almost constant military conflict. While the fighting itself only killed few people, armies marching across Europe spread diseases. It has been estimated that a single army of 6,000 men, dispatched from La Rochelle to fight in the Mantuan war, killed up to a million people by spreading the plague.European cities were not healthy places and where in fact much unhealthier than their Far Eastern counterparts. They probably had death rates that exceeded rural ones by 50%. In China, the rates were broadly the same in urban and rural areas. The reason has to do with differences in diets, urban densities, and sanitation, or lack there of.
Epidemics were also frequent. The plague did not disappear from Europe after 1348. Indeed, plague outbreaks continued until the 1720s, peaking at over 700 per decade in the early 17th century. In addition to wars, epidemics were spread by trade. The last outbreak of the plague in Western Europe occurred in Marseille in 1720; a merchant vessel from the Levant spread the disease, causing 100,000 men and women to perish. Since Europe has much greater variety in terms of geography and climate than China, disease pools remained largely separate. When they became increasingly connected as a result of more trade and wars, mortality spiked.Voigtländer and Voth continue
In combination, the “Three Horsemen” – war, urbanisation, and trade-driven disease – probably raised death rates by one percentage point by 1700. Once death rates were higher, incomes could remain at an elevated level even in a Malthusian world. The crucial question then becomes why Europe developed such a particular set of factors driving up mortality.
We argue that the Great Plague of 1348-50 was the key. Between one third and one half of Europeans died. With land-labour ratios now higher, per capita output and wages surged. Since population losses were massive, they could not be compensated quickly. For a few generations, the old continent experienced a “golden age of labour”. British real wages only recovered their 1450s peak in the age of Queen Victoria.
Temporarily higher wages changed the nature of demand. Despite having more children, people had more income than necessary for mere subsistence – population losses were too large to be absorbed entirely by the demographic response. Some of the surplus income was spent on manufactured goods. These goods were mainly produced in cities. Thus, urban centres grew in size. Higher incomes also generated more trade. Finally, the increasing number and wealth of cities expanded the size of the monetised sector of the economy. The wealth of cities could be taxed or seized by rulers. Resources available for fighting wars increased – war was effectively a superior good for early modern princes. Therefore, as per capita incomes increased, death rates rose in parallel. This generates a potential for multiple equilibria. Figure 4 illustrates the mechanism. The death rate increases over some part of the income range, which maps into urbanisation rates. Starting at E0, a sufficiently large shock will move the economy to point EH, where population is again stable.
In the discussion paper, we calibrate our model. The effect of higher mortality on living standards is large. We find that we can account for more than half of Europe’s precocious rise in per capita incomes until 1700.The conclusion of all of this?
To raise incomes in a Malthusian setting, death rates have to rise or fertility rates have to decline. We argue that a number of uniquely European characteristics – the fragmented nature of politics, unhealthy cities, and a geographically heterogeneous terrain – interacted with the shock of the 1348 plague to create exceptionally high mortality rates. These underpinned a high level of per capita income, but the riches were bought at a high cost in terms of human lives.
At the same time, there are good reasons to think that it is not entirely accidental that the countries (and regions) that were ahead in per capita income terms in 1700 were also the first to industrialise. How the world could escape the Malthusian trap at all has become a matter of intense interest to economists in recent years. In a related paper, we calibrate a simple growth model to show why high per capita income at an early stage may have been key for Europe’s rise after 1800.