Economic Inequality in Northwestern Italy: A Long-Term View (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)
By Guido Alfani (Bocconi University)
Review by Emanuele Felice
The pioneering work by Simon Kuznets placed the evolution and determinants of economic inequality as one of the central subjects in economics and economic history. The recent success of Thomas Piketty’s latest book (see the Book Reviews section of the NEP-HIS Blog) bears witness to inequality being a topic of great interest to a wider public.
However, constructing reliable estimates of inequality for pre-industrial times is a highly-demanding task. This is the ultimate reason why, in spite of good theorizing and much speculation about the subject, we have so few “actual” figures for the Middle Ages and the Modern Era. The paper by Guido Alfani contributes to the latter, thus quenching our thirst for historical data. Indeed, other than van Zanden’s (1995) seminal work on the Low Countries, Alfani’s is the only comprehensive and thorough study of inequality for a large geography (i.e. the Piedmont region) over a long period of time (from the first half of the 14th century to the early 19th century). Moreover, Alfani provides some good interpretative hypotheses and viable explanations for the observed patterns: here there is much to think, and to learn, about the history of pre-industrial societies.
The article is well-organized and aims to expose as clearly as possible sources and methods − including some thorny, technical issues. Following an introduction where the relevance of the subject is highlighted in the context of previous systematic studies, a first section provides an overview of the progressive extension of and the fiscal reforms introduced by the House of Savoy into the Piedmont (from circa 1350 onwards). By the late 18th century the House of Savoy had become the most expansionist and successful of all the Italian states. However, it was perhaps not the most powerful one as the Bourbon’s rule in the south (i.e Naples and Sicily in the 17th and 18th centuries) was considerably larger and commanded more resources.
In section 2, Alfani details the sources for his database. These included records of taxable property (estimi or catasti), which the communities of Piedmont compiled in order to distribute the fiscal burden among households. This because they had to decide how to pay the tasso, a direct tax imposed for the first time in 1562 which by the early 17th century had grown into the main fiscal instrument of the Sabaudian domains. About this source Alfini comments:
The “estimi” are particularly convenient for conducting large-scale studies, as they show an impressive stability through space and time. (p.8)
The Italian estimi can be divided in two categories: “per property” which include lands and buildings and were more common; and “per yield” which include capital, credits, and other movables.
Alfani points out that all the sources used in his estimates are based on estimi per property, which thus only track one of the components of wealth, real estates. But he also adds that there is good reason to believe that in pre-industrial societies (which were largely agricultural) wealth inequality is a good proxy of income inequality as the size of land holdings would determine income. Thus income and wealth would tend to move in the same direction − even more as they do today.
Based on the per property estimi, Alfani constructs a database made up of 16 communities and 12 times series. These include six cities and six series of rural communities (it is noted that seven rural communities are grouped in three aggregates, plus other three individual rural communities). This database is impressive indeed. The actual locations it covers are scattered throughout the Piedmont region, with benchmark years stretching from 1311 (Chieri) until 1772 (Saluzzo). A total of 55 estimi were used.
Sections 3 to 6 offer the main results of the article. In Section 3 he calculates and discusses a Gini index for each of the 55 estimi analysed. Other measures of inequality include the share of wealth owned by the top 5% and 10% of the population as well as inter-decile ratios. Section 4 delves into a discussion about the impact of disease and pandemics on inequality, from the Black Death to epidemics in the 17th century. Section 5 presents estimates of inequality at the regional level for the whole of the Piedmont: specifically estimates of Gini coefficients from the 16th to the end of the 18th centuries, which are then compared with those estimated for the Low Countries by van Zanden (1995). In this section Alfani also calculates the share of wealth owned by the top 10% and 5% at regional level from the 14th to the end of the 18th centuries.
From Alfani’s analysis, several findings stand out. Among these, the positive correlation between urban demographic growth and inequality, the fact that cities experienced greater inequality levels than rural areas, or the prominent role of the top rich in determining inequality changes. The most important result, however, is yet another one: the evidence that in Piedmont, during the Early Modern period (16th and 17th centuries), inequality was on the rise, both in cities and in rural areas, and independently from whether the economy was growing or stagnating. As the author states:
«This is a new finding that directly challenges earlier views that tended to explain inequality growth as the consequence of economic development.»(p. 43)
In this respect, it could even be argued that the well-known Kuznets curve should be relativized to a short phase of human history, the Industrial Revolution. This finding also has an impact on the debate about the Italian decline in the 17th century (e.g. Cipolla 1952), insofar as it provides empirical confirmation for an established literature (e.g. Romano 1972) holding that the Italian decline was also due to rising inequality, which reduced the opportunity for productive investments and the size of the national market, at a time of growing international competition.
Equally important can be the results about the consequences of epidemics for inequality. In this case, Alfani’s inquiry does not confirm earlier hypotheses based on Tuscan data (actually, on the Tuscan city of Pistoia), according to which after the Black Death there was a rise in inequality (Herlihy 1967). The case study of Piedmont tells us quite the contrary, and appears to be consistent with a vast literature stressing the decline of inequality due to higher wages, after the Black Death. The opposite, however, occurred after the plague of the 17th century: now, the rise in inequality (or at least the fact that in the medium term the plague did not prevent inequality from rising) was probably due to «the institutional adaptation that occurred in-between» (p. 44); namely, to the creation of institutions that prevented the fragmentation of inheritance, and thus of real estates, such as the fideicommissa. Quite correctly, in my view, the author reminds us that after the Black Death adaptation to a new environment, where epidemics had become endemic, occurred:
«and for the human species, adaptation also means institutional adaptation» (p. 23).
Cipolla, C.M. (1952) ‘The Decline of Italy: The Case of a Fully Matured Economy’, The Economic History Review, 5(2): 178-187.
Herlihy, D. (1967) Medieval and Renaissance Pistoia: The Social History of an Italian Town, 1200-1430. New Haven, CO: Yale University Press.
Romano, R. (1972) ‘Una tipologia economica’, in R. Romano and C. Vivanti (eds.), Storia d’Italia. I caratteri originali. Turin: Einaudi, pp. 254-304.
Van Zanden, J.L. (1995) ‘Tracing the beginning of the Kuznets curve: Western Europe during the early modern period’, The Economic History Review, 48(4): 643-664.