Fertility and economic status

Kings and Emperors were rich, but not all the Rich were Kings and Emperors. So, it follows that historical evidence showing Kings and Emperors had lots of kids doesn’t tell us much about whether or not the Rich had lots of kids.

Laura Betzig makes this error in her critique of Farewell to Alms (pdf). To counter the claim, falsely attributed to Clark, that England was the only place where there was a relationship between fertility and economic status, she cites a long list of Kings and their concubines in various other countries and eras ((Clark only conjectures the connection between fertility and economic status was stronger in England. He doesn’t provide any cross-country evidence support this conjecture, though.)). Its an interesting historical fact that some men in the past had hundreds (and some thousands) of wives and children, but this says nothing about what was happening in the society at large. While Nebuchadnezzar was stealing other Kings’ wives and I’m sure having many sons by them, who knows how reproductive his underlings and other members of the upper classes were.

By definition, Kings are different (they’re Kings!) so they simply can’t be a representative sample. Clark’s wills are as close to a representative sample of the whole population as one can hope for in historical data. Using this data, Clark shows English nobility, on average, had fewer children than their merchant-class counter-parts and he shows that while there’s a relationship between wealth and fertility no such relationship exists between social class and fertility. The data from England should make us even more suspect of previous studies that use the fact of a few highly fecund royalty to suggest links between fertility and economic status in the society as a whole. These guys were just outliers and we usually throw outliers out of the analysis.

This is a common mistake people make when they talk about Clark’s book. I think its caused by history being biased towards Kings. Pre-modern history, as it is taught, is populated by Kings and their loyal subjects. It is full of stories of their conquests (usurpations, wars and treaties). Most of history though, as it was actually lived, is populated with normal every day folk and their stories are more mundane ((Approximately 0% of the total humans that ever lived were Kings, but approximately 100% of pre-1800 history is about Kings.)). This means most of our historical data, and much of our historical thinking, is biased towards describing Kings rather than every day folk. If we want to test theories about every day folk, like Darwinian theories of the Industrial Revolution, we have to remove this bias.

11 thoughts on “Fertility and economic status”

  1. Not just that, but I thought European royalty did a lot of inbreeding from the middle ages onward.

    Also – in England, I have the impression that the king wasn’t especially powerful from the mid-17th century onward. Contrast this with France or Spain during the same period.

  2. I’d say not a huge amount, but much more than a modern president.

    You dismiss wars, but wars require armies and navies, requiring men and materiel that must be supplied by those average people. What happens when the emperor declares that all the trees in your country are reserved for the navy, and you can’t cut timber anymore? A president needs the support of their parliaments and courts to pull off something like that.

  3. There were at most 12,000 Englishmen at the Battle of Cressy in 1346. The population of England was 2 or 3 million at that time (it was just after the black death). That army, then, was less than 1% of the total population of England… or about 4% of the total fighting age male population. This isn’t a big number.

    Those wars were financed through taxes which Clark documents were very, very low by modern standards. I have to run to class, but I think the tax rate was well below 10% in pre-modern England.

    So, I say your statement about Presidents is exactly the opposite of the truth. Today’s elite political powers have much more impact on the every day man’s life than those in the past. And yet, our history books are filled with stories about those historical elites and we’re seduced into believing those people’s lives in some way resembled the every day folks’.

  4. “Today’s elite political powers have much more impact on the every day man’s life than those in the past.”

    I think it’s just different. As Swong alludes to, our political powers tend to behave in very predictable ways. This is definitely preferred and can be interpreted as “they’re less actively involved.” On the other hand, modern powers are constantly and passively involved in very predictable ways.

  5. So the King did mostly nothing to the average Joe, but every once in a while he’d do arbitrarily bad things to him (like kill him)? I’m interested to know more about what you mean by “actively involved”.

    It would be interesting to see various Kings’ purge rates versus, for example, the modern probability of being shot by a police officer or executed.

    Are you talking about “rule of law”?

  6. Not arbitrary but like Swong was alluding to.

    My point was that the unpredictability is the key difference. Even the probability of being shot by a police officer or being executed is somewhat predictable based on circumstances.

  7. Death penalties were usually applied more liberally (heh) under classic monarchies. Then again, the sovereign probably wasn’t directly involved in more than a tiny fraction of those sentences. You might get shot for being driving while black in the wrong neighborhood, but that’s different from being put to death for being the nephew of the squire of one of the king’s rival cousins, or having your tongue ripped out by the sheriff for sounding Jewish.

    Anyway – I was just trying to say that representational systems tend to have a serious damping effect on decisions made by the person at the top, for better or worse. Royal mandates and vetoes are harder to override.

    I think I see the source of confusion, though. A medieval peasant probably saw very little high-level state influence on their daily life. No workplace regulations. No affirmative action or discrimination laws. I’m guessing that their equivalent of taxes were higher rents paid to their liege, who in turn paid taxes up the chain to the king’s coffers, so pressure at the top would inevitably be transmitted downward. Then again, no state education, no state health care, little state infrastructure, and the draft could be a bitch.

  8. So people are ambiguity averse not necessarily risk averse? This is an interesting distinction because Clark explicitly argues that pre-modern times weren’t more risky. He wants to make this argument because standard theories have interest rates varying with risk and he wants time preferences to be the reason why interest rates declined over the centuries just before 1800.

    But were pre-modern times more ambiguous? How would you test this idea? It seems to me the I’m just as likely to form expectations about the King expropriating my horse as I am to form expectations about the modern tax man taking my house away.

    On the other hand, what does “rule of law” imply for the forming of expectations? The King is a noisy process to learn about because he’s one guy (one data point has higher variation than an average and so our standard errors of our estimates are higher) and every 20 years or so he’s someone else (discontinuous jumps in average and standard deviations). So maybe “rule of law” just means its easier to learn the contours of the political data generating process.

    Oh, and does ambiguity just mean your statistical tests have low power?

  9. Actually, I think your take on ambiguity is interesting. Nobles could be fickle, but long term cultural trends were fairly stable. You could count on customs, languages, and technology to be pretty much the same over the course of your life. Sow in the spring, harvest in autumn, replant and repeat; days portioned by the ringing of church bells.

    Contrast this with the rate of change in the modern world. Politicians can’t do nearly as much individually, but our culture is mutating like a petri dish under a sun lamp (nice pun there, no?) Humans used to plan on the scale of generations; look at any cathedral. Now, we measure our cultural shifts in 8 year chunks.

    Having thought about it a bit more, I think I’m coming around to your original position. Kings had more than zero influence, but far less than total.

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