(Roughly) Daily

“Geography is destiny”*…

Why are some large regions (like China) politically unified, while others (like Europe) are divergent? Researchers at The Centre for Economic Policy Research have tested a leading theory…

Why are some parts of the world politically fragmented while others tend to be dominated by a single state? This age-old question has implications for many important topics in comparative economic development such as the origins of the Great Divergence (see Broadberry 2021) or the divergence in political institutions between China and Europe (see Jia et al. 2021).

Scholars going back at least as far as Montesquieu and Hume have attributed the rise of Western Europe to its persistent political fragmentation. More recently, Jones (2003), Mokyr (2016, 2017), and Scheidel (2019) have developed this thesis in novel ways. These authors acknowledge that a polycentric state system has static costs such as tariff barriers and more wars but argue that, on the net, it is associated with better dynamic incentives for intellectual innovation and state building.   

But what determines these patterns of fragmentation? More concretely: what factors account for the prevalence of political polycentrism in Europe and the prominence of political centralisation in China? A leading explanation of this phenomenon is the ‘fractured land’ hypothesis, most famously stated by Diamond (1997). According to this view, fractured land such as mountain barriers, indented coastlines, and rugged terrain precluded the development of large empires in Europe. In comparison, China’s geographical features led to its recurring unifications.

While the fractured land hypothesis has been widely cited and much criticised (e.g. Hoffman 2015), it has not been formally modeled or tested. In Fernández-Villaverde et al. (2022), we fill this gap by providing a quantitative investigation of the fractured-land hypothesis. We do so by modeling the dynamic process of state-building and exploring how fractured land shaped inter-state competition in unexpected, non-linear ways…

Simulating the model between 1000 BCE and 1500 CE, it can replicate the fragmentation of Europe and the consolidation of China. Modified versions of the model can predict patterns of development in the Americas and Africa, while future extensions could try to disentangle the importance of culture and religion versus geography…

Fascinating: “The fractured land hypothesis: Why China is Unified but Europe is not,” from @cepr_org.

* Abraham Verghese


As we muse on the model (and remember that “fragmentation” is relative), we might recall that it was on this date in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that West Virginia was admitted as a state to the Union.

A key border state during Civil War, it was the only state to form by separating from a Confederate state (Virginia), one of two states (along with Nevada) admitted to the Union during the Civil War, and the second state to separate from another state, after Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820.

Some of its residents held slaves, but most were yeoman farmers, and architects of statehood provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in the new state constitution. Indeed, the state legislature abolished slavery in the state, and at the same time ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery nationally on February 3, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, a statue on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capitol (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 20, 2023 at 1:00 am

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