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The early modern origins of contemporary European tax outcomes

Journal article
Authors Michelle D'Arcy
Marina Nistotskaya
Published in European Journal of Political Research
Volume 57
Issue 1
Pages 47-67
ISSN 0304-4130
Publication year 2018
Published at Quality of Government Institute (QoG)
Department of Political Science
Pages 47-67
Language en
Keywords state capacity; taxation; cadaster; state-building
Subject categories Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)


What explains variation in tax outcomes between European states? Previous studies emphasise the role played by political institutions, but focus mostly on the input side of politics – how access to power and policy making is structured – and the institutions of relatively recent times. It is argued in this article that output-side institutions related to the implementation of political decisions also matter and have deep institutional origins. As the classic literature has argued, the early modern period from 1450 to 1800 was formative for the development of fiscal capacity, but European states diverged in the stock of capacity they acquired. This article tests whether these differences still affect contemporary tax outcomes using a novel measure of fiscal capacity, based on the age, extent and quality of state-administered cadastral records. The empirical analysis shows that, on average, countries with higher early modern fiscal capacity have higher tax revenue today, compared to countries with lower early modern fiscal capacity. This association is robust to different model specifications and alternative measurements. The findings have important policy implications as they indicate how deeply the current fiscal problems of the continent are entrenched, but also point to what needs to be prioritised within ongoing tax reforms.

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