Centralization, state-building, and literature

When I first started learning about differential development patterns in the Americas, I believed that former Spanish colonies lagged behind the US because of the overly bureaucratic, centralized government they had inherited from the mother country. This was the original view of Spain that Douglass North put forth in his early work.  Alejandra Irigoin and Regina Grafe describe this interpretation: “Spain was absolutist, interventionist, centralist, statist, bureaucratic and constitutionally disinclined to grant its subject much local government.” [Irigoin & Grafe, HAHR, 2008].

Later I learned that economic historians had rejected this viewpoint as having little basis in reality.  In the book I co-authored, The Long Process of Development: Building Markets and States in Pre-industrial England, Spain and their Colonies, we show that Spain was hardly a centralized, bureaucratic state:

“Until the 1580s Philip’s ‘defense department’ had only one secretary assisted by a handful of clerks, none with military experience. As he prepared to launch the Spanish Armada to try to conquer England, he doubled the number of responsible defense officials to two–one for the army and one for navy! The ships were largely rented from Genoa.”

This lack of centralization was replicated in the colonies:

“The New Spain viceroyalty contained modern Mexico, much of North America, Venezuela, the Caribbean Islands, the Philippines, and all of Central America except modern Panama. Even in the 1600s it nominally included most of the future United States except the Atlantic coastline and the French areas north of the Ohio River. The Viceroyalty of Peru contained all the rest of Spanish South America plus modern Panama.”

Here is a map of New Spain in 1810:


Here’s how we summarize governance in the colonies:

“Spain established two viceroys in ruling the New World, one essentially for North America and one essentially for South America. Neither viceroy had significant staff, and neither had a centralized bureaucracy.   Until the 1770s Madrid did not even create an orderly set of provincial governments at the level of the future American states.

With the possible exception of the Church, the administrative organs were grossly understaffed. Even in the late 1700s, David Brading notes that ‘the Spanish Crown depended on a mere handful of officials to govern its American empire.’ He reports that ‘in New Spain the entire judicial bureaucracy, for example, the salaried members of the Audiencia of Mexico and Guadalajara, numbered about 30 persons [in the late 1700s].'”

So while over centralization and bureaucratization used to be blamed for slow growth in post-colonial Latin America, we argue instead that it is the opposite:  the countries were insufficiently governed and that left a power vacuum in the chaos of independence.

I was reminded of these issues when I recently finished Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop” (a beautiful book about late 19th century New Mexico).  The novel gives the reader a great sense of how long the distances were in those times and how little that area was actually governed.  Here are some of my favorite quotes:

The Bishop (originally from France) arrives in New Mexico and immediately faces resistance from the locals, who dispute the idea that the territory is no longer controlled by Mexico.

The Bishop laments “I wish I knew how far this is! Does anyone know the extent of this diocese, or of this territory? The Commandant at the Fort seems as much in the dark as I. He says I can get some information from the scout, Kit Carson, who lives at Taos.”  

Because of the resistance, the bishop must travel to the Bishop of Durango to get official papers showing that he is now in charge of Catholic affairs in the area.  That was easier said than done in that period:

“Your Eminence, the Bishop of Durango is an old man; and from his seat to Santa Fé is a distance of fifteen hundred English miles. There are no wagon roads, no canals, no navigable rivers. Trade is carried on by means of pack-mules, over treacherous trails. The desert down there has a peculiar horror; I do not mean thirst, nor Indian massacres, which are frequent. The very floor of the world is cracked open into countless canyons and arroyos, fissures in the earth which are sometimes ten feet deep, sometimes a thousand. Up and down these stony chasms the traveller and his mules clamber as best they can. It is impossible to go far in any direction without crossing them.  If the Bishop of Durango should summon a disobedient priest by letter, who shall bring the Padre to him? Who can prove that he ever received the summons? The post is carried by hunters, fur trappers, gold seekers, whoever happens to be moving on the trails.”

and lastly, the vicar notes that “at Rome they did not seem to realize that it was no easy matter for two missionaries on horseback to keep up with the march of history.”  

I might assign section of the book next time I lecture on centralization and nation-building.  There is something more “real” perhaps about reading it in a novel with characters you care about than just as a passing note in a textbook.