The Consequences of Radical Reform: The French Revolution

In this article we exploit the variation in institutional reform created by the French Revolution in Europe, in particular within Germany, to investigate the consequences of radical, externally imposed reforms on subsequent economic growth. After 1792 French armies occupied and reformed the institutions of many European countries. The set of reforms the French imposed in the territories that they conquered were extensive and radical; they included the imposition of the civil legal code, the abolition of guilds and the remnants of feudalism, the introduction of equality before the law, and the undermining of aristocratic privileges. The long-run implications of these reforms are of interest both for historical reasons and also because they are related to current debates on institutional change. For example, the view that “designed” and externally imposed institutions are unlikely to foster economic progress would suggest that the French Revolution should have significant negative effects.1 In contrast, the view that oligarchies, entry barriers, and restrictions on trade in labor and other markets were the main impediment to growth in Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century would suggest that the revolutionary reforms should have unleashed more rapid economic growth in affected areas (Mancur Olson 1982; Acemoglu 2008).

Daron Acemoglu
Davide Cantoni
Subject Area: 
Published in: American Economic Review
2011 101 Pages 3286-3307


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