Colonial Origins of Latin American Inequality? Some Reflections Based on New Empirical Evidence

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Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales, Universidad Carlos III
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This paper attempts at contributing to the ongoing debate on the historical roots of the high economic inequality of contemporary Iberian America. Basically empirical, our approach departs from mainstream scholarship. We show new data on wages and heights in several viceroyalties that: 1) suggest relatively medium to high levels of material welfare among the commoners in Bourbon Hispanic America; 2) allow us to build indexes of economic inequality. An international comparison of those indexes casts some doubts on the widely accepted view that Viceroyal America’s economy was exclusively based on extremely unequal or extractive institutions, as it has been popularized by the influential works by Engerman and Sokoloff (1994, 2002, 2005), Acemoglu et al. (2002).[RESUMEN] Este trabajo pretende contribuir al debate sobre las causas históricas de la alta desigualdad económica en la Iberoamérica contemporénea y lo hace en forma básicamente empírica, lo que es bastante inusual. En él se muestran nuevos datos sobre salarios y estaturas de varios virreinatos que: (1) sugieren niveles de bienestar material relativamente medios o altos para grupos no privilegiados de la Hispanoamérica borbónica; y (2) permiten la construcción de índices de desigualdad económica. La comparación internacional de esos índices arroja dudas sobre la verosimilitud del ampliamente extendido supuesto de que la economía de la América española se basada exclusivamente en instituciones extremadamente desiguales o extractivas, que ha sido popularizada por los influyentes trabajos de Engerman y Sokoloff y Acemoglu et al.
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