[Prediction] The Consequences of Radical Reform

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. ↩︎