States and Agrarian Transformations in Eighteenth Century Europe

Supervisors: Timothy Colton, Peter A. Hall, Torben Iversen, and Daniel Ziblatt

What is the state's role in economic development? In recent years comparativists, political economists, and economic historians have converged on the desirability of a "strong" state for economic development over the long run. But which types of state capabilities are implicated in the notion of "strength"? Strong states, presumably, contribute to long-run economic growth because they are able to do things that are beyond the capabilities of "weak" states. But what do they do?

Since the 1990s, institutionalist political economy has become the dominant theoretical framework for scholars animated by these questions, and the "Great Divergence" one of the main testing grounds for its propositions. The standard institutionalist approach offers a temptingly generalizable set of answers to the questions just raised. On this view, central representative assemblies – the putative forerunners of modern democratic parliaments – and similarly "inclusive" political institutions in medieval and early modern Europe fostered growth by restraining the state executive from infringing upon subjects' property rights, thereby encouraging productive investment and facilitating the creation of an efficient system of public finance. The "strong" state, in the standard institutionalist account, is strong precisely in virtue of the fact that the executive is constrained, and strength is construed to mean fiscal capacity and enforcement of contracts.

I contend that this institutionalist approach, despite the important insights derived from it, neglects and even obscures essential aspects of the state's developmental role. Specifically, it does not have much to say about how some early modern states managed to fulfill the positive developmental tasks implicated in the transition to modern growth, above all the structural transformation of the economy. As Robert Bates (2017) reminds us, the politics of the agricultural sector and its transformation are at the heart of development: if we do not understand the preconditions of structural transformation, then we do not understand the origins of modern economic growth. Existing institutionalist theory does not generalize beyond its narrow set of developmental tasks to provide an explanation of the state's role, or that of representative institutions, in carrying out more demanding developmental tasks such as structural transformation. Resolution of these more demanding tasks in no way followed mechanically once the state had acquired a certain level of fiscal capacity or once the state executive had been appropriately "constrained"; each task required government to acquire a specific set of capabilities, and there is no a priori reason to believe that these were readily transferable from one problem to the next.

Chapter 1 of the dissertation elaborates an alternative account of the state's role in the transition to modern growth, an account that does answer the question of how some European states successfully overcame the barriers to structural transformation found in the existing agrarian social structure and the lord-peasant relationship in particular. I see the early modern state as proto-corporatist and proto-developmental (in the sense of Peter Evans). It drew its strength – its capacity to remove the barriers to and to create the preconditions for modern growth – from collaboration with guilds, Estates, self-governing towns, and the myriad other kinds of corporate organizations that populated early modern European society. Such organizations possessed vital reserves of local knowledge and administrative expertise that even the most capable eighteenth century bureaucracies lacked. Strength in turn refers not so much to fiscal capacity as to the political capacity of the state, its ability to "mobilize consent" or forge elite coalitions in support of welfare-enhancing policy changes. Representative assemblies and other "inclusive" institutions, I maintain, contributed to development not by defending the established property rights regime, but by granting the state the political capacity to broker transfers of property rights amongst elites, to legitimately redefine property rights, and to negotiate the elimination of certain classes of property rights (in this context, the manorial lord's rights to exercise quasi-public authority over his peasant tenants) that were antithetical to self-sustaining growth. But not all representative institutions, as the following chapter explains, were equally capable of performing this vital developmental function.

Chapter 2 develops a theory of eighteenth century agrarian reforms – here meaning state regulation of the lord-peasant relationship, undertaken with the aims of strengthening the peasant farmer's rights of occupancy on his holding and reducing his obligations to the lord. The choices involved in the design of these agrarian policies had weighty implications for long-run outcomes such as landholding inequality, class stratification, and agricultural productivity. Understanding why agrarian reforms were carried out in some eighteenth century polities but not in others, therefore, is of paramount importance to a broader theory of development.

Even in ostensibly "absolutist" regimes, I propose, the sovereign faced a choice between two courses of action with respect to agrarian policy. She could work with the nobility, assembled as a corporate body in the territorial Estates, to negotiate the terms of reform and to implement it in collaboration with the lords themselves. Or she could act unilaterally, dictating the terms of rural transformation to the lords and relying solely on the state’s bureaucratic infrastructure to carry it out. I refer to the first approach as negotiated reform and to the second as imposed reform. The limitations of all eighteenth century bureaucracies meant that reforms negotiated with the Estates were much more likely than imposed policies to be implemented in practice. Consequently, the dissertation's central empirical question can be restated as follows: under what circumstances were state and Estates able to reach a negotiated reform settlement?

Drawing from the latest historical scholarship on early modern nobilities, state formation, and representation, I argue that different groups within the nobility have different propensities to cooperate with state-led programs of agrarian transformation. Specifically, aristocrats are far more likely to support agrarian reforms than their lower or petty noble counterparts. Consequently, the likelihood of negotiated reform turned, first, on which of these groups dominated the territorial Estates, and second, on the Estates' capacity to resolve the numerous agency problems inherent in agrarian reform. With respect to the first of these two explanatory variables, the strength of the petty nobility at the Estates was a product of the criteria for political participation – the inclusiveness of representative institutions. With respect to the second, I argue that some representative bodies possessed institutional attributes, such as well defined decision rules and a permanent presence in the form of a standing committee, that enhanced their capacity to resolve agency problems. I group these attributes together under the rubric of manageability. My theory therefore predicts that negotiated agrarian reforms are most likely to take place in polities where the existing representative institutions are both exclusive (that is, where representation of the petty nobility is minimal) and manageable. I also contend that the crown's ability to access aristocratic patronage networks and thereby neutralize the opposition of the petty nobility reinforced these formal institutional attributes in creating favorable conditions for negotiated reform. Chapter 2 concludes by introducing the alternative explanations for variation in the mode of reform against which I test my theory in the dissertation's empirical chapters, including familiar accounts centered on the threat of revolution and the strength of the bourgeoisie.

Chapter 3 tests my theory using an original dataset of all agrarian reform initiatives undertaken by 24 states in central and eastern Europe between 1730 and 1805. I find that negotiated reform processes were more likely to occur in polities where the established representative institutions are highly exclusive and where they possess the institutional attributes needed to resolve agency problems. Crucially, there is no tradeoff between the scope or ambition of eighteenth century agrarian reforms and the mode of reform: the de jure achievements of negotiated reform are similar to those obtained in polities where the imposed mode of reform predominated. (Chapters 4 and 5 address the question of de facto implementation.) Panel analysis uncovers no evidence for the "strength of the bourgeoisie" hypothesis and compelling evidence against the threat of revolution: peasant revolts predict transitions away from negotiated reform. The incidence of agrarian reform also declines in the wake of the French Revolution, especially in those countries that were most exposed to the threat presented by revolutionary armies and ideas.

Chapter 4 process-traces the enactment of agrarian reforms in the Russian Baltic provinces of Estonia and Livonia between 1795 and 1805. The probative value of these cases is high: the exclusivity of the Estates in these provinces makes Estonia and Livonia most-likely cases for negotiated reform if my account of the politics of agrarian policy is true; at the same time, they are least-likely cases for negotiated reform under the leading alternative explanations. As such, the fact that we observe a paradigmatic process of negotiated reform in both polities strongly increases confidence in my argument relative to its alternatives. The chapter also examines various observable implications of my theory. One central prediction is that most supporters of state intervention in the lord-peasant relationship are drawn from the aristocracy. I test this observable implication using an original dataset of more than 100 Livonian noblemen, whose support or opposition to the proposed agrarian regulations I assessed with the help of documents preserved in the state historical archives in Riga and St Petersburg. The analysis reveals that wealthier nobles and members of established, prominent families were most likely to favor state regulation of the lord-peasant relationship; members of the opposition party, in contrast, were recruited chiefly from the poorer nobility and from recently ennobled families (a proxy for lower social status). This chapter also explores the contemporaneous conflict over admission to the Livonian nobility, showing that conservative nobles tried to block the agrarian reform package by relaxing the criteria for political participation – that is, by making the province's representative institutions more inclusive of the petty nobility. Finally, the chapter examines the implementation of agrarian reforms and their implications for structural transformation. The reforms were carried out through mixed commissions of Russian bureaucrats and Baltic noble landowners, and, despite legal emancipation of the Livonian peasantry in 1819, the schedules of peasant obligations created as part of the earlier reforms continued to define the basic parameters of the lord-peasant relationship for nearly half a century.

Chapter 5 explores the determinants of reform implementation. The centerpiece of the chapter is a most-similar case comparison, which takes advantage of the division of Silesia between the Habsburg and Hohenzollern monarchies as a result of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48). Most of this former Habsburg possession fell into Prussian hands, but the House of Austria retained control over the southernmost portion of the province. I show that the same institutional and non-institutional variables that make negotiated reform more or less likely to occur militated in favor of successful implementation in Austrian Silesia and against it in Prussian Silesia. Both Maria Theresa and Friedrich the Great constructed rudimentary "bureaucracies" in their portions of Silesia during the 1740s and 1750s. Only in the Austrian partition, however, were subsequent (1760s–80s) agrarian regulations actually implemented and generally enforced at the level of the individual village. I argue that reform initiatives in Prussian Silesia failed because the throne lacked access to the existing patronage networks of the Silesian aristocracy, most of whom chose to remain in Habsburg service even after 1748. It was not the strength of the state's bureaucratic infrastructure, in other words, but the relationship between the sovereign and the territory's indigenous elites that is paramount in explaining cross-polity variation in the success of eighteenth century agrarian reforms.

Summing up, the dissertation uncovers major aspects of the state's role in economic development that the currently dominant institutionalist approach neglects. It shows that institutionalist theorizing on the role of the state and of "pre-modern" representative institutions falters when confronted with more demanding developmental tasks such as structural transformation of the economy. This task in particular required the early modern state to acquire a range of capabilities not envisioned by standard institutionalism, and which indeed more closely resemble the attributes of the developmental state in Peter Evans's classic formulation. The role played by representative assemblies and other "inclusive" institutions, in this context of structural transformation, was not to protect the established property rights regime but instead to grant the state the administrative and above all the political capacity to legitimately redefine, and in certain cases eliminate, those classes of property rights which themselves impeded self-sustaining growth. Not all representative assemblies were equally well equipped to perform this function; rather ironically, they were most likely to play a constructive, pro-developmental role when they were in a certain sense least representative. The dissertation concludes by assessing the generalizability of my findings to a range of other developmental tasks associated with structural transformation, including state-led campaigns to encourage the adoption of new crops, implements, and land use systems in agriculture and the policies adopted by some states to secure an adequate supply of food to their rapidly growing urban centers.