Summary: Conservatives belittle concerns about America’s increasingly unrepresentative government. Citizens in these big states have 29% the voting weight of small states in the Federal government (even slaves were weighted at 60%). Citizens in cities have less representation than those in rural areas (just as in Britain’s 18th century rotten boroughs). Unequal political representation has caused serious problems in other societies, eroding away their legitimacy and increasing social tensions. As shown in a new study, it was a major cause of the American Revolution (despite the colonies’ low taxes). It will cause problems for us unless fixed.
By Jen Deaderick in the NBER Digest, December 2016.
“Monarchists resisting an incipient democracy movement in Britain prevented a compromise that could have placated the American colonists.”
“No taxation without representation” — the rallying cry of the American Revolution — gives the impression that taxation was the principal irritant between Britain and its American colonies. But, in fact, taxes in the colonies were much lower than taxes in Britain. The central grievance of the colonists was their lack of a voice in the government that ruled them.
“The political underpinnings of the American Revolution have been discussed and debated for more than two hundred years, and there are multiple explanations of the causes and multiple analyses of the revolutionary dynamic. One question about the revolution that has remained difficult to answer is why, if a little representation in Parliament could have prevented a war for independence, did King George III not grant it?
“This question is the motivation for Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens’ study “Why Not Taxation and Representation? A Note on the American Revolution”. They note, in drawing attention to the role of representation as a spark for revolution, that the average British citizen who resided in Britain paid 26 shillings per year in taxes, compared with only one shilling per year in New England, even though the living standard of the colonists was arguably higher than that of the British.
“Most accounts of the events that led to the American Revolution depict a conflict between the colonies and a unified British government. In fact, the researchers argue, the reality was more subtle. They draw on a variety of historical accounts to describe the tension between two rival British interest groups, the landed gentry and the democratically inclined opposition, and to explain the failure to reach a compromise that would have granted representation to the colonies. In particular, they focus on how extending representation would have affected the relative influence of these two groups.
“The researchers consider events a century before the American Revolution to have set the stage for the domestic tensions in Britain at the time of the colonial protests. In 1649, during the English Civil War, a rebellion of Parliamentarians overthrew — and beheaded — King Charles I. Oliver Cromwell, who ruled for most of the subsequent decade, supported expanding representation in government beyond landowners, and his government was sympathetic to grievances like those raised by the American colonies many decades later. Following Cromwell’s death in 1658, however, Royalists returned to power and sought to restore the historical ruling class.
“When the colonies asked for representation in the middle of the 18th century, the monarchy was still recovering from its dethroning, and the landed gentry, now returned to primary power, still felt vulnerable. The researchers point out that the Royalists were contending with factions that sought to bring democracy to Britain. While these opposition groups did not hold significant power, if representatives from the American colonies were invited to join Parliament, they likely would have sympathized with the opposition and expanded their influence. The researchers see this tension as critical to understanding why Britain was so reluctant to enfranchise the colonists.
“There were proposals to settle the colonial crisis peacefully, most notably by Thomas Pownall and Adam Smith. Smith, for example, proposed “a system in which the political representation of Great Britain and America would be proportional to the contribution that each polity was making to the public treasury of the empire.” Such proposals were rejected by the ruling coalition in Britain. “The landed gentry, who controlled the incumbent government, feared that making concessions to the American colonies would intensify the pressure for democratic reforms, thus jeopardizing their economic and political position,” the researchers find.
“Ultimately, the opposition of the landed gentry to the demands for representation by the American colonies pushed the colonies to rebellion and independence, but helped to delay the development of the incipient democratic movement in Britain.”
Abstract of the paper
By Sebastian Galiani and Gustavo Torrens.
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), October 2016.
“Why did the most prosperous colonies in the British Empire mount a rebellion? Even more puzzling, why didn’t the British agree to have American representation in Parliament and quickly settle the dispute peacefully? At first glance, it would appear that a deal could have been reached to share the costs of the global public goods provided by the Empire in exchange for political power and representation for the colonies. (At least, this was the view of men of the time such as Lord Chapman, Thomas Pownall and Adam Smith.)
“We argue, however, that the incumbent government in Great Britain, controlled by the landed gentry, feared that allowing Americans to be represented in Parliament would undermine the position of the dominant coalition, strengthen the incipient democratic movement, and intensify social pressures for the reform of a political system based on land ownership. Since American elites could not credibly commit to refuse to form a coalition with the British opposition, the only realistic options were to maintain the original colonial status or fight a full-scale war of independence.”
About the authors
About the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
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The Bureau’s associates concentrate on four types of empirical research: developing new statistical measurements, estimating quantitative models of economic behavior, assessing the economic effects of public policies, and projecting the effects of alternative policy proposals. The NBER is supported by research grants from government agencies and private foundations, by investment income, and by contributions from individuals and corporations.
For More Information
- Is the US government illegitimate? If so, does that justify violent revolution?
- Undercutting people’s trust in the Republic: another step to destroying the Republic.
- What if Samuel Adams tried to start the Revolution by blogging?
- Samuel Adams started the Revolution because he didn’t have Twitter.