Extractive Policies and Economic Outcomes: the Unitary Origins of the Present-Day North-South of Italy Divide

by Guilherme de Oliveira (Columbia Law School) and Carmine Guerriero (University of Bologna)


Italy emerged from the Congress of Vienna as a carefully thought equilibrium among eight absolutists states, all under the control of Austria except the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, dominated by the Bourbons, and the Kingdom of Sardinia, ruled by the Savoys and erected as a barrier between Austria and France. This status quo fed the ambitions of the Piedmontese lineage, turning it into the champion of the liberals, who longed to establish a unitary state by fomenting the beginning of the century unrest. Although ineffective, these insurrections forced the implementation, especially in the South, of the liberal reforms first introduced by the Napoleonic armies, and allowed a rising class of bourgeoisie, attracted by the expanding international demand, to acquire the nester nobility’s domains and prioritize export-oriented farming. Among these activities, arboriculture and sericulture, which were up to 60 times more lucrative than wheat breeding, soon became dominant, constituting half of the 1859 exports. Consequently, farming productivity increased, reaching similar levels in the Northern farms and the Southern latifundia, but the almost exclusive specialization in the agrarian sectors left the Italian economy stagnant as implied by the evolution of the GDP per capita in the regions in our sample, which we group by their political relevance for the post-unitary rulers as inversely picked by Distance-to-Enemies (see upper-left graph of figure 1). This is the distance between each region’s main city and the capital of the fiercer enemy of the Savoys—i.e., Vienna over the 1801-1813, 1848-1881, and 1901-1914 periods, and Paris otherwise—and is the lowest for Veneto, which we then label the “high” political relevance cluster. Similarly, we refer to the regions with above(below)-average values as “low” (“middle”) political relevance group or “South” and to the union of the high-middle relevance regions and the key Kingdom of Sardinia regions—i.e., Liguria and Piedmont—as “North.”


Figure 1: Income, Political Power, Land Property Taxes, and Railway Diffusion

1  Note: “GDP-L” is the income in 1861 lire per capita, “Political-Power” is the share of prime ministers born in the region averaged over the previous decade, “Land-Taxes” is the land property tax revenues in 1861 lire per capita, and “Railway” is the railway length built in the previous decade in km per square km. _M (_H) includes Abruzzi, Emilia Romagna, Lombardy, Marche, Tuscany, and Umbria (Veneto), whereas KS gathers Liguria and Piedmont. The North (_L) cluster includes the M, H, and KS groups (Apulia, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Lazio, and Sicily). See de Oliveira and Guerriero (2017) for each variable sources and definition.


Despite some pre-unitary differences, both clusters were largely underdeveloped with respect to the leading European powers at unification, and the causes of this backwardness ranged from the scarcity of coal and infrastructures to the shortage of human and real capital. Crucially, none of such conditions was significantly different across groups since, differently from the Kingdom of Sardinia, none of the pre-unitary states established a virtuous balance between military spending and investment in valuable public goods as railway and literacy. Even worst, they intensified taxation only when necessary to finance the armies needed to tame internal unrest, which were especially fierce in the Kingdom of Two Sicilies. The bottom graphs of figure 1 exhibit this pattern by displaying the key direct tax, which was the land property duty, and the main non-military expenditure, which was the railway investment.

Meanwhile, the power of the Piedmontese parliament relative to the king grew steadily and its leader Camillo of Cavour succeeded to guarantee an alliance with France in a future conflict against Austria by sustaining the former in the 1856 Crimean War. The 1859 French-Piedmontese victory against the Habsburgs then triggered insurrections in Tuscany, the conquest of the South by Garibaldi, and the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. Dominated by a narrow elite of northerners (see upper-right graphs of figure 1), the new state favoured the Northern export-oriented farming and manufacturing industries while selecting public spending and the Northern populations when levying the taxes necessary to finance these policies. To illustrate, the 1887 protectionist reform, instead of safeguarding the arboriculture sectors crushed by 1880s fall in prices, shielded the Po Valley wheat breeding and those Northern textile and manufacturing industries that had survived the liberal years thanks to state intervention. While indeed the former dominated the allocation of military clothing contracts, the latter monopolized both coal mining permits and public contracts. A similar logic guided the assignment of the monopoly rights in the steamboat construction and navigation sectors and, notably, the public spending in railway, which represented the 53 percent of the 1861-1911 total. Over this period indeed, Liguria and Piedmont gained a 3 (4) times bigger railway spending per square km than Veneto (the other regions). Moreover, the aim of this effort “was more the military one of controlling the national territory, especially in the South, than favouring commerce” [Iuzzolino et al. 2011, p. 22]. Crucially, this infrastructural program was financed through highly unbalanced land property taxes, which in turn affected the key source of savings available to the investment in the growth sectors absent a developed banking systems. The 1864 reform fixed a 125 million target revenue to be raised from 9 districts resembling the pre-unitary states. The ex-Papal State took on the 10 percent, the ex-Kingdom of Two Sicilies the 40, and the rest of the state (ex-Kingdom of Sardinia) only the 29 (21). To further weigh this burden down, a 20 percent surcharge was added by 1868 creating the disparities displayed in the bottom-left graph of figure 1.

The 1886 cadastral reform opened the way to more egalitarian policies and, after the First World War, to the harmonization of the tax-rates, but the impact of extraction on the economies of the two blocks was at that point irreversible. While indeed a flourishing manufacturing sector was established in the North, the mix of low public spending and heavy taxation squeezed the Southern investment to the point that the local industry and export-oriented farming were wiped out. Moreover, extraction destroyed the relationship between the central state and the southern population by unchaining first a civil war, which brought about 20,000 victims by 1864 and the militarization of the area, and then favouring emigration. Because of these tensions, the population started to display a progressively weaker culture as implied by the fall in our proxy for social capital depicted in the bottom-left graph of figure 2.

The fascist regime’s aversion to migrations and its rush to arming first, and the 1960s pro-South state aids then have further affected the divide, which can be safely attributed to the extractive policies selected by the unitary state between 1861 and 1911.

Empirical Evidence

Because the 13 regions remained agrarian over our 1801-1911 sample, we capture the extent of extraction with the land property taxation and the farming productivity with the geographic drivers of the profitability of the arboriculture and sericulture sectors. In addition, we use as inverse metrics of each region’s tax-collection costs (political relevance) the share of previous decade in which the region partook in external wars (Distance-to-Enemies).

Our fixed region and time effects OLS estimates imply that pre-unitary revenues from land property taxes in 1861 lire per capita decrease with each region’s farming productivity but not with its relevance for the Piedmontese elite, whereas the opposite was true for the post-unitary ones. Moreover, post-unitary distortions in land property tax revenues—proxied with the difference between the observed and the counterfactual ones forecasted through pre-unitary estimates (see upper-left graph of figure 2)—and the severity of the other extractive policies—negatively captured by the tax-collection costs and the political relevance (see below)—positively determined the opening gaps in culture, literacy (see bottom-right graph of figure 2), and development, i.e., the income in 1861 lire per capita, the gross saleable farming product, and the textile industry value added in thousands of 1861 lire per capita.


Figure 2: The Rise of the North-South Divide

2Note: “Distortion-LT” are the land property tax distortions in 1861 lire per capita, “Distortion-R” is the difference between Railway and the forecasted length of railway built in the previous decade in km per square km, “Culture-N” is the normalized share of the active population engaged in political, union, and religious activities, and “Illiterates-N” is the normalized percentage points of illiterates in the population over the age of six. See figure 1 for each cluster definition and de Oliveira and Guerriero (2017) for each variable sources and definition.


These results are consistent with the predictions of the model we lay out to inform our test. First, because of limited state-capacity, the pre-unitary states should reduce extraction if confronted by a more productive and so powerful citizenry, whereas the extractive power of the unitary state should be sufficiently strong to make taxation of the South profitable at the margin and so crucially shaped by his relevance. Second, it should also induce the Southern citizenry to prefer private to public good production and his investment and welfare to rise with factors limiting taxation, i.e., marginal tax-collection costs and political relevance.

Since our proxies for the drivers of extraction are driven by either geographic features independent of human effort or events outside the control of the policy-makers, reverse causation is not an issue. Nevertheless, our results could still be produced by unobserved heterogeneity. To evaluate this aspect, we control for the interactions of time effects with the structural conditions differentiating the two blocks in 1861 and considered key by the extant literature (Franchetti and Sonnino, 1876; Gramsci, 1966; Barbagallo, 1980; Krugman, 1981), i.e., the pre-unitary inclusiveness of political institutions, the land ownership fragmentation, the coal price, and the railway length. Including these controls has little effect on our results. Finally, two extra pieces of evidence rule out the possibility that extraction was an acceptable price for the Italian development (Romeo, 1987). First, it did not shape the manufacturing sector value added. Second, while the pre-unitary length of railway additions was only affected by the farming productivity, the post-unitary one was only driven by the political relevance, resulting useless in creating a unitary market (see upper-right graph of figure 2).


Although the North-South divide has been linked to post-unitary policies before (Salvemini 1963; Cafagna, 1989), nobody has formally clarified how the unitary state solved the trade-off between extraction-related losses and rent-seeking gains. In doing so, we also contribute to the literature comparing extractive and inclusive institutions (North et al., 2009, Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012), endogenizing however the extent of extraction in a setup sufficiently general to be applied to other instances, as for instance the post-Civil War USA.


Political Institutions Shaping Economic Outcomes: Land Tenures in Colonial Sind 1843-1920

by Tehreem Husain

Interactions of political and economic institutions and their ramifications on development outcomes have been recognised by academics and policymakers alike. This blog analyzes the principal-agent relation between the British coloniser and local landlords and peasants in British Sind during 1843-1920. It argues that changes in political institutions during the period affected economic institutions, which through path dependence persists today.


Research in the area of comparative institutions and economic development points to the fact that political institutions once in place, persist and shape the political-economic interactions between different groups and agents. Moreover, past institutional frameworks also have a degree of influence on the direction that institutional change takes place (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2008). This has been the case in British Sind (part of Bombay Presidency till 1935) as well. Sind’s primarily agrarian societal structure was based in powerful landlords who held large tracts of land with peasants having little or negligible ownership rights. The institution of land tenures – a term which encompasses rights of land occupancy, land revenue collection and land ownership – did not only impact agricultural productivity and welfare outcomes during the period under study but can still be felt today.

Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson’s seminal paper on institutions (2005) has highlighted the instrumental role that land tenures and property rights play in determining social outcomes and trajectory of economic growth of a group, region or a nation. This is applicable to British Sind too. During 1843-1920 system and laws regarding land revenue and tenures were taking roots in the region. Overall, three different forms of land tenure systems were introduced in India; landlord-based system (zamindari), an individual cultivator based system (ryotwari), and a village-based system (mahalwari). Selection of a system was mainly defined by the actual or prospective land revenue from an area. The importance of choosing a specific land tenure system and hence extraction of land revenue from a region can be gauged from the fact that by the mid-nineteenth century land revenue contributed more than 50 percent and even seventy years later by 1920 more than 40 percent to the total revenue of British India.

In ensuring smooth collection of land revenue, the governance structure adopted by the British aligned itself to the indigenous societal structure using the local landlords as ‘intermediaries’, usually those who had ‘traditional’ or ‘customary’ authority. The colonial state maintained de jure ‘direct rule’ over the territory however in reality coercion was enforced by intermediate local political elites who operated outside the bureaucratic-rational apparatus of the state (Naseemullah and Staniland, 2014). The local landlord was made powerful firstly by granting them revenue-free lands which were heritable, and secondly, by giving them powers to collect revenue. This was done in exchange of curtailing any political and social resistance against the British. On the other hand, unlike in other parts of India where agricultural tenants had occupancy rights (Swamy, 2011), tenants in Sind would till the land and meet conditions that the landlords may impose on them from time to time without any land-ownership (Hughes, 1876).

Granting local landlords rent free lands and special privileges of land revenue collection fortified the extant hierarchical societal structure and was broadly aimed at establishing and perpetuating British rule through the institution of land tenures. Land revenue and administration records exhibit that 19.5% of land amongst large tracts of land (500 acres or more) had rent-free status in Sind-the highest in the entire Bombay Presidency. Moreover, legislative acts were also passed during this period to ensure that the power and influence the landlords wielded was not undermined.

Interestingly, upon Sind’s annexation to the empire in 1843, the British desired to deal directly with the cultivator and implemented the ryotwari system of land tenures. However, they soon realized the local landlords were wielding enormous authority over the peasants living with little or no land rights. Hence ryotwari system converged closely to a zamindari system; though official records continued to recognize it as the former. Consequently, the utilitarian nature of ryotwari system was destroyed by trading rights of the peasants for achieving political gains.

The approach of granting rent free lands and closely following the zamindari system of land tenures was at odds with the colonial power’s fiscal target of improving public finances from this area for the larger aim of achieving political expediency. The fact that a significant portion (87 percent) of revenue was alienated in Sind relative to rest of Bombay Presidency is evidence of this claim. Moreover, it also impacted agricultural productivity. This can be ascertained from the fact that alienated land had the lowest yield. Colonial records also give evidence to the claim that revenue per acre from alienated land was quite low in Sind and was falling. More importantly, incidence of revenue in non-alienated land was highest in Sind. This shows that the incidence of revenue was primarily on tenants and on small landlords. As much as the analysis of historical land tenure systems in Sind gives insight on how economic institutions were influenced and shaped it also serves as a social premise on Sindi society which to this day has largely been unchanged relative to what it was more than 150 years ago.

Furthermore, comparison of land revenue and administration records from Sind to rest of the Bombay Presidency suggests that the land grants to the landlords in Sind were very pronounced relative to other districts in the Presidency. Overall, analysis of land revenue and administration records from 1843-1920 highlight three aspects of economic history of Bombay Presidency in British India.

First, it argues that the, like in other parts of the colony, British colonizers exploited agency relation to govern Sind and used local landlords as their agents. The interesting part is that they built principle-agent relation by first confiscating the whole area and then making grants of large tracts of heritable rent­-free land to the old rulers and landlords. These land grants were the highest in Sind compared to rest of the Bombay Presidency and reinforced the existing social order through land tenure system. Primary purpose of this approach was to ensure smooth governance in the province.

Second, using land tenures as an instrument to achieve political expediency, they implemented ryotwari land tenure system on paper which, however, in spirit, was more like the zamindari system. This has implications for earlier work on historical land tenures in India (for instance Banerjee, 1985) wherein official records on land tenures have been considered as the practiced one. This needs to be tested for other parts of British India. This impacted agricultural productivity and revenue outcomes.

Third, although land granted as jagirs, inam etc. was done elsewhere in the Bombay Presidency (of which Sind was a part till 1935), this article argues that this was carried out in the harshest form in Sind where the tenant had no occupancy rights unlike elsewhere in the Bombay Presidency. The impact of this was reflected in low agricultural yields from alienated land in Sind relative to the same category elsewhere in the Bombay Presidency. Moreover, these effects are still being felt today and these institutions have permeated through time and shown path dependence. Researchers using data from the latest agricultural census of Pakistan 2010 have shown that inequality in terms of land ownership has increased through time in Sind.