320/2017 Debin Ma and Jared Rubin
Tax extraction in Qing China was low relative to Western Europe. It is not obvious why: China was much more absolutist and had stronger rights over property and people. Why did the Chinese not convert their absolute power into revenue? We propose a model, supported by historical evidence, which suggests that i) the centre could not ask its tax collecting agents to levy high taxes because it would incentivize agents to overtax the peasantry; ii) the centre could not pay agents high wages in return for high taxes because the centre had no mechanism to commit to refrain from confiscating the agent’s resources in times of crisis. A solution to this problem was to offer agents a low wage and ask for low taxes while allowing agents to take extra, unmonitored taxes from the peasantry. This solution only worked because of China’s weak administrative capacity due its size and poor monitoring technology. This analysis suggests that low investment in administrative capacity can be an optimal solution for an absolutist ruler since it substitutes for a credible commitment to refrain from confiscation. Our study carries implications for state capacity beyond Imperial China.
Journal of Comparative Economics