James Robinson at the World Economic History Congress 2012, Stellenbosch University. Photo by Reinhardt Germishuijs.

A major theme of the current World Economic History Congress (follow #wehc2012 on twitter) is the colonial impact of European settlement. James Robinson, in his plenary on Monday (here are the slides), argues that “there is a clear case for colonialism retarding development”, especially in “colonies which corresponded to a pre-colonial polity: there was the essentials of order and public goods provision which could have been the basis for development, colonialism stopped the existing dynamics of centralization and severed links of accountability (indirect rule) and in many cases created or intensified conflicts.” According to Robinson, “colonies of large scale white settlement: mass immizerization associated with land expropriation, creation of huge inequalities, institutionalized racism. These colonies were more successful on average during colonialism, but had worse problems to deal with afterwards (Zimbabwe).”

This position is somewhat surprising, given that this is the same Robinson of the now famous Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson paper, which argues that settler institutions were conducive for economic development in contrast to the extractive institutions set up in areas where Europeans could not settle. Also, Easterly and Levine have a new paper which shows empirically that the more Europeans that settled, and the earlier they did so, the better for those countries today: “The results are consistent with the view that the proportion of Europeans during the early stages of colonization exerted an enduring, positive impact on economic development.”

So was colonisation good or bad? I guess it depends on who you ask. Ask the masses of native inhabitants who died because of settler diseases (or the settlers who died of native diseases), and they would be pretty sceptical about the benefits of colonisation. Ask the slaves and the indentured labourers who struggled to survive just above subsistence (although there is also heterogenous experiences here), and they would also be pretty pessimistic about the benefits. But the descendants of settlers, slaves and natives that now live in countries where European immigration was greater have attained higher living standards than regions where European settlement was low. Is it better to live in South Africa or the Congo? Ask the Congolese, Somali and Zimbabwean immigrants (settlers? refugees?) that arrive in South Africa every day.

But perhaps we are asking the wrong question. As I’ve argued before, showing that more white people is correlated with higher levels of income today explains very little about the mechanisms that cause this growth. If we want to learn from the histories of colonisation, we need to understand its causal mechanisms – property rights, human capital, trade, democracy, language, religion or culture, and its dynamic interactions with each other over time. Only by understanding these mechanisms can the experiences of colonisation have positive consequences for future generations.