Skip to main content
Article thumbnail
Location of Repository

History without Evidence: Latin American Inequality since 1491

By Jeffrey G. 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.

OAI identifier:

Suggested articles


  1. (2008). at
  2. (1998). Chinese Economic Performance in the Long Run,
  3. (1993). Economics and World History: Myths and Paradoxes,
  4. (2008). Globalization and the Great Divergence: Terms of Trade Booms and Volatility in the Poor Periphery 1782-1913,”
  5. (2006). Globalization and the Poor Periphery before
  6. (2004). Growing Public: Social Spending and
  7. (2006). Historia del Capitalismo agrario pampeano: Volume 3: De Rivadavia a Rosas; Desigualdad y crecimiento economico (Buenos Aires: Universidad de Belgrano-Siglo XXI).
  8. (2008). Income Distribution in the Latin American Southern Cone during the First Globalization Boom, ca 1870-1920,” paper presented to the conference New Frontiers of Latin American Economic History,
  9. (2008). India and the Great Divergence: Assessing the Efficiency of Grain Markets in Eighteenth-
  10. (2007). Inequality and Poverty in Latin America: A Long-Run 27 Exploration,”
  11. (2007). Inequality, Redistribution, and Population,” KSG Faculty Research Working Paper RWP07-046,
  12. (2000). Institutions, Factor Endowments, and Paths of Development in the New World,”
  13. (2002). Land, Labor, and Globalization in the Third World,
  14. (2007). Lost Decades: Postindependence Performance in
  15. (2009). Lost Decades? Economic Performance in PostIndependence Latin
  16. (2007). New evidence on the urbanization of global poverty,"
  17. (2002). Real Inequality in Western Europe since 1500,”
  18. (1999). Real Wages, Inequality, and Globalization
  19. (2002). Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Development in the
  20. (2001). The colonial origins of comparative development,”
  21. (2005). The Gift of the Dying: The Tragedy of AIDs and the
  22. (1992). The Great Compression: The Wage Structure in the United States at Mid-Century,"
  23. (1983). The International Market in Rice and Wheat 1868-1914,"
  24. (2008). Top Incomes Over the Twentieth Century: A Contrast Between Continental European and English-Speaking Countries (Oxford:
  25. (1936). Two Tracts by Gregory King,
  26. (1983). Why Ireland Starved: A Quantitative and

To submit an update or takedown request for this paper, please submit an Update/Correction/Removal Request.