How longstanding is Latin American inequality?

Not so much, says economic historian Jeffrey Williamson:

Most analysts of the modern Latin American economy hold to a
pessimistic belief in historical persistence — they believe that Latin
America has always had very high levels of inequality, suggesting it
will be hard for modern social policy to create a more egalitarian
society. This paper argues that this conclusion is not supported by
what little evidence we have. The persistence view is based on an
historical literature which has made little or no effort to be
comparative. Modern analysts see a more unequal Latin America compared
with Asia and the rich post-industrial nations and then assume that
this must always have been true. Indeed, some have argued that high
inequality appeared very early in the post-conquest Americas, and that
this fact supported rent-seeking and anti-growth institutions which
help explain the disappointing growth performance we observe there even
today. This paper argues to the contrary. Compared with the rest of the
world, inequality was not high in pre-conquest 1491, nor was it high in
the postconquest decades following 1492. Indeed, it was not even high
in the mid-19th century just prior Latin America’s belle époque. It
only became high thereafter. Historical persistence in Latin American
inequality is a myth.

An ungated version can be found here.


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