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.