Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Why the Catholic Church May Have Caused France to Have Too Low a Population Today

Usually when the Catholic Church is mentioned, one thinks of persons encouraging people to have more children and consequently populations to grow. However, in a current working paper, Oxford economist Ferdinand Rauch and his LSE colleague Guy Michaels show that the Catholic Church may have caused there to be fewer Frenchies today than what would otherwise have been the case. From the abstract:

"Do locational fundamentals such as coastlines and rivers determine town locations, or can historical events trap towns in unfavorable locations for centuries? We examine the effects on town locations of the collapse of theWestern Roman Empire, which temporarily ended urbanization in Britain, but not in France. As urbanization recovered, medieval towns were more often found in Roman-era town locations in France than in Britain, and this difference still persists today. The resetting of Britain’s urban network gave it better access to naturally navigable waterways when this was important, while many French towns remained without such access."
One reason why this happened is the decline of the Catholic Church on the British Isles after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 453 AD, while the bishoprics of France remained strong and attracted people who might have otherwise founded new towns.

This is a very interesting working paper and I hope it will be published in a good journal. This is not really my field, but before, I put a great deal of stock in the locational fundamentals hypothesis, but now I tend to think that maybe cities are also partially just random formations from a group of people's at one time happening to live close together.

Still, I am not saying that randomness is a big part, just somewhat greater than I had thought before. To adjudicate between the competing hypotheses, one can look at bomb raids and natural disasters and see whether the affected cities have risen again. This is the approach taken by many economists and as far as I can tell it tends to favour the locational fundamentals hypothesis. But Rauch and Michaels do a great job of achieving variation in the sources of evidence and that is why I update my beliefs and why I - again - hope this paper gets its authors a really good publication.

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