Wealth and Income Inequality in the Early Modern Period

Comparing Income and Wealth Inequality in Pre-Industrial Economies: Lessons from 18th-Century Spain

By Esteban A. Nicolini (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) and Fernando Ramos Palencia (Universidad Pablo de Olavide)

Abstract: In this new working paper on preindustrial inequality, Nicolini and Ramos Palencia build upon their earlier work on income inequality in eighteenth-century Old Castile (Nicolini and Ramos Palencia 2015) by looking into one particularly important, and difficult to assess, aspect: how to reconstruct, for a given preindustrial society, estimates of both income and wealth inequality – considering that the sources, according to the place and the period, have the tendency to inform us only about one of the two. Given the amount of new information about long-term trends in preindustrial inequality, of either income or wealth, which has been made available by recent research, the authors point at what clearly constitutes one of the next steps we should take and in doing so, they also provide a useful contribution to the methodological debates which are taking place among scholars working on preindustrial inequality.

URL: http://econpapers.repec.org/paper/heswpaper/0095.htm

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-03-29

Review by Guido Alfani

Summary

In this paper Nicolini and Ramos explore the connection between income and wealth for a large sample of communities from different Spanish provinces: Palencia, Madrid, Guadalajara and Granada. They combine information from two different sources:

1. the Catastro de Ensenada (ca. 1750), which provides information about household income, and

2. probate inventories (covering the period 1753-68), a source which has often been used to estimate wealth inequality.

These two sources are combined using nominative linkage techniques in order to take advantages of one to solve the weaknesses of the other. In particular, the almost-universal scope of the survey within the Cadastre enables Nicolini and Ramos to assess with certain precision the actual coverage of the probate inventories (which tend to be biased towards the upper part of the distribution). This allows them the resampling or weighthing of the information to improve the study of wealth inequality. It should be underlined that the Catastro de Ensenada is a truly exceptional source. It was an early attempt at introducing a universal tax on income. As the new tax was proportional and should have replaced a number of indirect provincial taxes with regressive effects, this fiscal innovation clearly moved in the direction of a more equitable system of taxation. Unfortunately, the new tax was never implemented – but at the very least, the attempt to introduce it generated a vast amount of useful information.

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Nicolini and Ramos were able to reconstruct both income and wealth for 194 observations, out of the much larger sample of 6,214 households for which they only have information about income. Nicolini and Ramos then explore the connection between income and wealth, finding (as was expected) a very strong correlation. However, they go much deeper, thanks to an econometric approach in which the distortions in the sample (determined in particular by over-representation of rich households) are corrected by weighting. They obtain many interesting and potentially useful results, in particular:

  1. they estimate the average rate of return to wealth to be 2.9% p.a. – which is, generally speaking, much smaller that usually implied in the literature. For instance, the rate of return to wealth implied by Lindert in his work on the Florentine Cadastre of 1427 was 7% p.a. (see below). However, if the association between income and wealth is analyzed by considering their logarithm (which is the econometric specification preferred by Nicolini and Ramos), then the elasticity of income to wealth varies between 0.4 and 0.9 depending on the region. This means that a 10% increase in household wealth is associated to an income increase comprised in the 4-9% range. This range is consistent with empirical findings in many studies of past and present societies, all of which suggest that income inequality is lower than wealth inequality;
  2. the distribution of household income increases less steeply than the distribution of household wealth. This might be due to the fact that labour income is relatively larger in the bottom part of the distribution, or that the wealth of the bottom part of the distribution consists for a larger part of income-producing assets, while the wealth of the richest people would consist also of other assets, including (unproductive) status goods and luxuries as well as cash;
  3. the relationship between wealth and income differs depending on the sector of activity of the household head (primary vs secondary/tertiary) and on the place of residence – although somewhat surprisingly, and differently from what reported for other European regions (for example Tuscany by Alfani and Ammannati 2014), Nicolini and Ramos do not find that urban households had greater wealth than rural ones. In the study by Nicolini and Ramos urban and rural wealth were usually on par, but in the extreme case of Guadalajara urban dwellers were less wealthy than rural dwellers.

 

Sample of Catastro de Ensenada (Archivo Simancas)

Sample of Catastro de Ensenada (Archivo Simancas)

 

Comment

This paper makes many interesting and potentially important contributions to the study of inequality in the early modern period, a field which has been particularly fertile in recent years. First, it provides new information about inequality in the Iberian peninsula, integrating other recent studies (e.g. Santiago-Caballero 2011; Reis and Martins 2012). Secondly, it contributes considerably to the development of a methodology to translate in a non-arbitrary way income distributions into wealth distributions, and vice versa. This is a crucial point, which deserves some attention.

The Ensenada Cadastre is an exceptional source as it provides data on income. As a matter of fact, most other sources of the “cadastrial” kind are essentially property tax records, which always list real estate and sometimes other components of wealth – but not income. However, it has also been argued that for the preindustrial period, in most instances wealth distributions are the best proxy we have for income distributions (Lindert 2014; Alfani 2015). This being said, moving from the good-quality distributions of wealth that have recently been made available for different parts of late medieval and early modern Europe (in particular, Alfani 2015; Alfani and Ryckbosch 2015) to acceptable distributions of income is clearly a worthy pursuit.

I would differ with Nicolini and Ramos Palencia in their statement that theirs is the first attempt at studying together income and wealth distributions in the pre-industrial period. For example, Soltow and Van Zanden (1998) did so in their study of the Netherlands. However, Nicolini and Ramos do provide useful and interesting insights into how to convert wealth distributions into income distributions. Many such attempts are currently underway and there are earlier examples, like Lindert’s method to convert the distribution of wealth in the 1427 Florentine catasto into an income distribution (results used in Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson 2011).

Moreover, Nicolini and Ramos Palencia stress many potential pitfalls in procedures of this kind. This being said, there are aspects of their current reconstructions which are a bit surprising and might be the result of sampling issues, as 59% of the 194 observations relate to the province of Palencia. Is Guadalajara, where rural dwellers were wealthier than urban dwellers, an exceptional case or does this depend on the very small sample (just 12 observations) the authors have for that region? To dispel any doubts, more probate inventories should be collected, in order to improve the territorial balance within the sample and to better account, both in the estimation process and in the econometric analysis, for possible regional variations. However, this does not alter the general conclusion. The paper by Nicolini and Ramos is a very useful piece of innovative research, grounded in new archival data and packed with useful insights about how to improve our knowledge of inequality in the pre-industrial period.

 

Ferdinand VI (1713 – 1759), called the Learned, was King of Spain from 9 July 1746 until his death.

Ferdinand VI (1713 – 1759), called the Learned, was King of Spain from 9 July 1746 until his death.

 

Selected Bibliography

Alfani, G. (2015), “Economic inequality in northwestern Italy: A long-term view (fourteenth to eighteenth centuries)”, Journal of Economic History, 75 (4), 2015, pp. 1058-1096.

Alfani, G. and Ammannati, F. (2014), Economic inequality and poverty in the very long run: The case of the Florentine State (late thirteenth-early nineteenth centuries), Dondena Working Paper No. 70.

Alfani, G., Ryckbosch, W. (2015), Was there a ‘Little Convergence’ in inequality? Italy and the Low Countries compared, ca. 1500-1800, IGIER Working Paper No. 557.

Lindert, P.H. (2014), Making the most of Capital in the 21st Century, NBER Working Paper No. 20232.

Milanovic, B., Lindert, P.H. and Williamson, J.G. (2011). “Pre-Industrial Inequality”, The Economic Journal 121: 255-272.

Nicolini, E.A. and F. Ramos Palencia (2015), “Decomposing income inequality in a backward pre-industrial economy: Old Castile (Spain) in the middle of the eighteenth century”, The Economic History Review, online-first version, DOI: 10.1111/ehr.12122.

Reis, J., Martins, A. (2012), “Inequality in Early Modern Europe: The “Strange” Case of Portugal, 1550-1770”. Paper given at the conference Wellbeing and Inequality in the Long Run (Madrid, 1 June 2012).

Santiago-Caballero, C. (2011), “Income inequality in central Spain, 1690-1800”, Explorations in Economic History 48(1): 83-96.

Soltow, L. and Van Zanden, J.L. (1998), Income and Wealth Inequality in the Netherlands, 16th-20th Century. Amsterdam, Het Spinhuis.

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2 thoughts on “Wealth and Income Inequality in the Early Modern Period

  1. Fernando Ramos Palencia

    First of all, Guido thank you very much for the comments and the suggestions; and Bernardo, many thanks for selecting our paper and congratulations for your excellent blog.
    In this paper Esteban and I have combined information of both income and wealth from the same set of households which helps to shed some light in the relation between the two distributions in a context of a pre-industrial (c. 1750-60), medium size, average income, semi-urbanized Spanish population. The income distribution, usually reconstructed using social tables, tend to be imprecise in the top part of the distribution given that the variability of income within an occupational category is large. Distribution of wealth, usually using fiscal sources or probate inventories is badly estimated in the bottom part of the distribution because of the important selection bias that arises from the fact that in general poor people is not included in this kind of records. The possibility to identify the position of each households in our data set of surviving probate inventories in the whole distribution of households (reconstructed using the Ensenada Cadaster), opens the possibility to analyze the magnitudes of the selection bias.

    We have studied three regions: 1) NORTH: Palencia city and rural Palencia; 2) CENTER: Guadalajara city and Las Vegas in Madrid; and 3) SOUTH: rural Granada (Baza and Lecrín Valley). Surely when in the Center, rural dwellers were wealthier than urban dwellers is because we have just 12 observations (probate inventories) in Guadalajara city. From Ensenada Cadastre we have the information from more 6,000 households. We know all that it is possible: age, occupation, no. of children, no. of servants, income from land, income for non-land properties, income from livestock, and labor income. But one of the major difficulties of our research is to find probate inventories whose heads of household are included in the Ensenada Cadastre. Unfortunately it is not an easy task mainly because only a limited number of probate inventories in each locality have come down to us in the archives. In other words we have a lot of information from Ensenada Cadastre, but near 1750 we have not the same amount of information via probate inventories (right now, we have not more probate inventories from Guadalajara city).
    ***
    Via twitter, Lot or small inequality?
    Probably (surely) lot. I think that inequality increased even during times of economic stagnation or decline. I agree with Alfani and Ryckbosch “the idea of a universal trade-off between growth and inequality needs to be replaced by stronger attention to social processes and institutional developments”
    See http://voxeu.org/article/income-inequality-pre-industrial-europe
    Right now we are working in a project to collect more information from Ensenada Cadastre in order to study income inequality in pre-industrial Spain. Our very preliminary results show that income inequality are higher in urban areas and in the south of the current Spain.
    If you want compare the inequality of Spain (data from Palencia) with other countries or regions (past and present) I will recommend the article of Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson (2011) in Economic Journal
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-0297.2010.02403.x/abstract

    Many thanks for the attention and the comments.

    Reply
    1. guidoalfani Post author

      Many thanks, Fernando, for this reply and for all your efforts in providing new high-quality information about economic inequality in the past. Clearly, you are doing it in the right way – starting with patient and complex archival work, followed by refined statistical analysis and intelligent interpretation of the results. I know from personal experience how frustrating it is when, after a lot of work, one is asked to provide even more data (if possible) – but this is what happens when you show exciting new information to economic historians: we could never have enough of it…

      Reply

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