[Prediction] The Consequences of Radical Reform

by lsusr5 min read9th Mar 202116 comments


World Modeling

Scott Alexander suggests readers make a prediction.

Under Napoleon, the revolutionary French took over large swathes of Europe. They abolished their client states' traditional systems, replacing them with the Napoleonic Code and other "modern" legal systems. Europe at the time had so many tiny duchies and principalities and so on that you can actually do a decent experiment on it - for every principality Napoleon conquered and reformed, there was another one just down the river which was basically identical but managed to escape conquest. So the authors ask: did the radically-reformed polities do better or worse than the left-to-their-traditions polities?

(admittedly, this is measured in GDP, urbanization, and other “legible” statistics - but pretty broad ones, measured over decades from a distance of centuries, in a way that seems to track very-long-term development and is hard to fake)

Take a second to make a prediction here - a real prediction, with a probability attached.

The Consequences of Radical Reform by Scott Alexander

I am making this prediction and posting it publicly having deliberately not read the rest of Scott Alexander's post. I may edit this post for spelling, grammar and clarity. I may even take this post down. But I will NOT change my prediction after the fact.

This post is written with no research. I have consulted no friends. I have read neither others' comments nor others' predictions. The following answer comes entirely from the information stored in my own memory prior to discovering Scott Alexander's challenge.

Clarifying the Question

I interpret this question to refer to subject territories outside of France proper because the question refers to "revolution [France taking] over large swathes of Europe".

My Prediction

GDP, urbanization and other legible statistics, as measured over decades from a distance of centuries, correspond to doing "better" from the perspective of the rulers. They do not (necessarily) correspond to doing "better" from the perspective of the ruled. Importing slaves can increase GDP while harming a population's average quality of life. The Napoleonic Empire was an Empire. Enlightenment ideals were a thin veneer painted on top of a fundamentally extractive system.

Most telling about this perspective is that the question (as stated) uses "GDP" rather than "per capita GDP". GDP only matters to the ruler. Per capita GDP (or, more precisely, purchasing power parity) matters to the subjects. Moreover, the emphasis on economic development over domestic stability is a recent phenomenon. Feudal economies cared more about war than about markets. Markets were even deliberately suppressed because wealthy business tycoons could threaten the warlord aristocracy.

This question's criterion measures whether the former subjects of the Napoleonic Empire at the height of European mercantilism did better by capitalist standards. This is acceptable. Dollar (or "Frank", I guess) profit is naturally quantified and has, in the broad sweep of history, lifted more people out of poverty than any competing ideology. Thus, we can frame the original question in terms of whether the Napoleonic Code accelerated or hindered capitalism in its former subject polities.

Cheating From History

We can try to cheat by looking backwards at history. Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana from Napoleon. Thomas Jefferson was the 3rd President of the United States after George Washington and John Adams. George Washington served for 8 years. I don't remember whether John Adams served for 4 years or 8 years. Thomas Jefferson's presidency therefore began in either 1788 or 1792. Either way, the Napoleonic Wars were fought around 1800.

The question measures the effects of the Napoleonic Code over decades (but not centuries). After WWII, European GDP temporarily increased due to the construction boom of countries rebuilding their bombed out cities, but I don't know how much of this phenomenon came from the Marshall Plan. Scott Alexander's question should ignore the first ten or twenty years after the collapse of Napoleon's Empire because changes to GDP in this time period are dominated by the war itself. It is hard to disentangle the effects of the war from the effects of the Napoleonic Code.

I will therefore set an endpoint to this question at 1850. If the question's measurement of GDP ends less than 10 years after the collapse of Napoleon's empire then consider my prediction voided.

1850 is either prior to the unification of Germany or, at least, not long after the unification of Germany. Prior to the unification of Germany and the American Civil War[1], Britain and France were the most powerful states in the world. It is plausible this is proximately due to geography except Europe has neither a Yangzi nor a Fertile Crescent. Europe is far away from the ancient civilizations of Eurasia. I expect the proximate cause of European exceptionalism comes from policy, not geography.

Putting all of this together, we have evidence that France itself did better by capitalist standards than the rest of Europe. Territories ruled by France for long enough to get new institutions but short enough not to have their wealth extracted probably did well too. I will guess that the benefits of modernization outweighed the damage due to subjugation.

Thinking Like a State

The Napoleonic system was NOT designed to increase local prosperity. Prosperity was, at best, instrumental and, at worst, a side-effect. Imperium serves the capital. The system was designed to increase the prosperity of France, in general, and Paris, in particular.

The French Revolution is sometimes thought of as a war against the ultimate incumbent interest: the Catholic Church. The French Revolution definitely did disassemble ancient local institutions containing irreplaceable wisdom. But the French Revolution DIDN'T do what the Soviet Union did. They didn't abolish traditional farming practices. They didn't (to my knowledge) systematically relocate entire populations. The creative destruction concentrated on cities, not the countryside.

Scott Anderson references Seeing Like a State in his post. The disastrous reforms of Seeing Like a State usually fall into one of three categories:

  1. Attempting to reengineer farming from scratch. This includes the act of forcibly relocating farmers.
  2. Zoning laws in cities.
  3. Destroying free markets.

1. If French policy focused on reforming cities then that is unlikely to have destroyed local agricultural knowledge. It might have damaged food distribution systems and perhaps markets too but not the knowledge of how to farm. Extractive systems actually tended to increase[2] yield of cereal crops. (Note: This often makes farmers worse off. But they are better off according to the criterion specified by Scott Alexander's question.) Cereal crop production determines population growth. Population size dominates historical GDP.

2. Napoleon isn't famous for reorganizing conquered cities in accordance to his divine plan. I think he liked the battlefield better than civic administration. I can imagine him carving a new street in a straight line through Paris. I have a hard time imagining him carefully segregating a newly-conquered city's residential districts from its entertainment complexes. Keep in mind that automobiles hadn't been invented yet.

3. It takes a powerful state to destroy free markets. The Napoleonic state was powerful by the standards of year 1800 but pitifully weak compared to Stalin and Mao. From my knowledge of the time period I predict it didn't even have an income tax.

The French Revolution certainly disrupted free markets because because wars and riots are bad for business. But the Revolutionaries weren't Communists. They weren't even socialists. By today's standards, they were local capitalists fighting an incumbent theocracy. I predict this was good for capitalism in the medium and long terms.

The legibility perspective is another point in favor of the French Revolution promoting capitalism by the standards of the question.

France Itself

The French state systematically exterminated minority cultures. You know how European borders line up more-or-less along the languages they speak? This is the result of ethnic cleansing[3]. Ethnic cleansing is effective at creating large homogeneous markets, which promotes capitalism. (This is why the China and the United States are the world's biggest markets.)


If our goal is to promote capitalism then you can have a state that reforms too much (Stalin, Mao, North Korea) but you can also have a state that reforms too little (Qing Dynasty, Tokugawa Shogunate, Ottoman Empire). The ideal case might be to build a bunch of infrastructure, force everyone to speak the same language[4] and then construct an extractive money-based[5] governance. I predict Catholic France did too little and that Napoleonic France moved it closer to the capitalist ideal without pushing it overboard into self-destructive socialism because the government simply wasn't strong enough. The world's most intrusive government in 1800 was outside-the-Overton-Window Libertarian by today's standards.

You are encouraged to place your own predictions in the comments to this article. If you do, please do so before reading my final prediction.

Here is my final prediction having NOT read the rest of Scott Alexander's article:

I predict with 70% confidence that the liberated subjects of Napoleonic France were "better off" on the time period of decades as measured by GDP, urbanization and similar statistics.

Update: I realize the Constitution Convention (and, with it, George Washington's Presidency) was years after 1776. My estimate of Thomas Jefferson's presidency remains unchanged, around 1800.

  1. Which you can think of as the "unification of the United States of America". ↩︎

  2. You can read about this in A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry's series on bread. ↩︎

  3. I am not confident about this statement. If this was a regular post then I would check its veracity before writing it. I cannot do that here due to the constraints of this writing format. ↩︎

  4. I do not claim that this is ethical. Just that it is effective if you seek to maximize capitalism. ↩︎

  5. The natural mediums of exchange are are commodities and credit. I subscribe to the theory that the earliest money-based systems were top-down systems created by states to fund themselves. ↩︎


16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:47 AM
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As an ASX addict, I also wrote a prediction, and was the third person to do so (though the first two were one-liners and mine was longer). Here's what I wrote.

Here’s my comment with my prediction before reading on: 70% that the places that re-rolled on governance got better.

I have been told that in general some of the best things for economic growth are wars and natural disasters. (Indeed, I expect/hope to see something similar coming out of Covid.) On many levels, razing the current system and letting a new one grow allows it to get into a better equilibrium.

That said, if you do a big enough level of destruction (e.g. x-risk) everything is just dead and there’s nothing good left. You can destroy the FDA and expect a better thing to rise up, but I think just destroying the United States doesn’t get you a better United States.

My prediction here is that most of the places that got taken over and re-done got better. I’m 70% that was the outcome. Main reason why I’m wrong is if they didn’t get to do the things that the people wanted and instead that the French made them all do the same top-down things that the French wanted (e.g. losing a democracy and getting a totalitarian leader).

(One other reason why I’m wrong is that it turns out Scott wrote a fun, narratively twisty post where the answer is “Gotcha, assigning a probability here is fundamentally confused” and they got better in some ways and worse on others and it all comes down to whatever philosophical assumptions you bring to the table. And then I will feel a little silly.)

Alright, that’s my prediction. 70% that the places that re-rolled on government improved.

 I predicted 80% on this particular set of reforms being good but I would have put 60 on the opposite if he had disguised the identity of the revolutionaries. Democracy and freedom are good and the French revolution/Napoleon were generally better at those than the pre-existing institutions. But most revolutions (and wars, and natural disasters) don't budge it either way. The average is a short burst of bloodshed followed by more of what came before. 

I highly doubt that wars or disasters are net good on average. Being defeated in WWII was probably good for the axis powers' economies because they replaced totalitarian states with democracies. But I doubt that's the default outcome. Losing a war with Spain, for example, seems to have been very bad for most countries' long-term prospects. 

Um. I didn't write down my prediction, and I didn't do much analysis either. But I estimated 70% just like (apparently) everyone else. [checks] Okay not everyone, but it does look like 70% in favor of reform doing better is the mode.

I was the first person to publicly predict 70%, so I would like to hereby claim that I'm a trend-setter and you just copied me.

When people are asked to say a random integer between 0 and 10, the most frequent answer is 7. (Seriously, go ahead and try it, you will get at least 30% sevens.) Also, when rationalists are asked to make a prediction, they know that 50% means "I don't know" and 90% means overconfidence, so they will probably choose something in between.

Therefore, 70% should generally be the most popular answer on SSC polls, regardless of the question.

7 is such a common guess it is literally used as a force (albeit an unreliable one) in some magic tricks.

Testable prediction made! Will see if/when ASX does this in future.

I would love it if I copied you since I didn't read anything first. My undefined superpowers will serve me well. I predict.

It's funny: I also guessed 70%. Specifically, I guessed that 70% of the places benefited which is not the same as lsusr's prediction but the same as Ben's. I didn't think of a confidence in this estimate. For lack of time, I didn't do an elaborate analysis but followed the intuition that when there are many data points some are bound to benefit and some not to. As the reforms generally seem to be seen as positive I rounded up to 70%. 

I think lsusr's point that measuring success by GDP obscures the local effects and esp. the GDP/person might tell a different story.

I think your claim that China and the US are the biggest markets due to being homogeneous is flawed. The United States is far from homogenous; in fact, it is on the way to becoming a minority majority country. This is quite different from China’s demographic makeup.

The relevant homogoneity isn't ethnicity, it's culture. Every American knows to look for white signs on the road for speed limits, to raise your hand if you have something to say in a group, and that Football is played on a field 100 yards long. These shared folkways ease the function of social life and enable commerce. You could pluck someone off the street of Montanna, drop them in New York, Louisiana, or even Guam and they could easily navigate, make purchases, share not only a language but likely interests and pastimes with locals, and order their favorite meal from a national chain restaurant.

I am quoting notJosephConrad :

Would it really kill economists to stick some reference to effect size in the abstracts of these things? If this were a clinical trial, and the authors were like "hey, good news, napoleolimumab increases modernization, now FDA-approved for your unsightly problems with Prussian stagnation" they'd have the common decency to say "10 years of french reforms increases the primary endpoint of urbanization in 1900 by 9% from 41% to 50%" But instead i had to hunt through the text for it like a goddamn animal (page 23, if you care. They also have a point estimate of 36% GDP increase.

But now that they forced me to go through the paper, some not-terribly informed thoughts:

1. I have the usual concerns about econ research -- were any of these analyses pre-specified? How many different analyses were tried before they went with this one, etc.

2. If I am reading this correctly, by 1850 no changes are seen. So all the positive effect of the new institutions is from 1850-1900. Interesting.

3. Riffing on '2' -- maybe this can be spun as another example of "industrialization changes everything" or "conservatism is a better default in the absence of massive scientific/technological change." Blowing up institutions in 700 AD does you no good, because there's no innovation to take advantage of, you just get chaos. Blowing up institutions in 1800 AD helps, because it enables social shifts to take advantage of new modes of production.

4. And just for honesty: my prediction was "can't discern an obvious effect" (which in retrospect was idiotic given that if it were a null effect it never would have been published)

In other words, this is chasing noise, zero-value research. Daron Amoglu is the most-cited economist in the world. His speciality is development economics. One of the foundational axioms is that historical contigencies have large effects on economic development decades or centuries later. This is a highly problematic assumption, one I think is mostly wrong. However, it is a treasure trove for telling 'interesting stories'. 

All these questions are implictly highly politicized. There is a pretension that economists are doing value-free research. This is a good ideal but very difficult; in practice there is an enormous incentive to p-hack noise into providing fodder for socially-approved stories.

My take-away message:

  1. You cannot trust 99% of social science research &Almost all social science researchers are highly sophisticated frauds 

 2. All big claims about the social world are so highly correlated with an implicit background worldview that is highly politicized. 

3. Never trust anything in a social science paper that you have not personally checked. 

Industrialization clearly doesn't change everything here. British political reform cleanly precedes the industrial revolution; US and French revolutions are post-British IR and may have been affected by it some, but before those countries really industrialized. 

Is it possible that political reform may have a causal influence on economic outcomes? Sure. 

Does this study prove and - more importantly- rigorously quantify this influence? No. 

The statistics are simply not powerful enough to yield such strong conclusions. 

The effect size is small, there is clear garden-of-forking-paths going on (only finding a real effect on urbanization), one has to mediate for a simple west-east axis. It is also highly suspicious that the effect only starts to take effect after 1850. etc etc etc

This could be pure noise. The study does not adequately reject the null hypothesis. 

Does this study prove it? Maybe not. But if there are confounding effects, industrialization ain't it. 

The French Revolution was... contemporary with the American Rev, so, around 1770s. I believe there was some sort of retrenchment by the 1880, so perhaps France was "Revolutionary" for on the order of 5 - 80 years (70% certainty).

Massive changes to the legal system and other social institutions seem likely to negatively affect GDP in the short term, with the possibility of positively affecting it in the longer term.

I'd give 40% that the signal is negative for at least a generation, perhaps longer.