Ploughs vs. sticks

There is small strain of the economics literature that deals with religion and culture and tries to take these things at face value. While much of economics (and economists) take culture out of the picture when creating models, there are whole conferences devoted to how culture influences our decision-making.

Much of the reason that culture is often excluded from economic models is that it is, or at least seems, endogenous. Culture determines our decisions which determines our culture, so we have a chicken-and-egg argument. You could say, then, that the point of the field of Economic History—which aims to bring economic reasoning to historical events and data–is to tease out which came first, the culture or the decision, the tradition or the allocation.

A recent paper by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano and Nathan Nunn tackles this chicken-and-egg question by comparing places where the plough was readily adopted and places where more labor (digging with sticks, weeding by hand) than capital prevailed as the dominant agricultural tool. They argue that fertility, or how many children one decides to have, was influenced on a societal level by the adoption of the plough. The reasoning is rather straightforward. The plough, as a labor-saving device, reduced the need for women and children in the fields, thus creating a less egalitarian culture–where women stayed at home instead of working outside the home–and one where women had less children.

They note the fertility result as surprising; their original hypothesis had been that a plough would increase fertility as it increased the time mothers would have to bear children. I don’t find it particularly surprising, knowing it takes a lot of hands to run a farm, but I do think it’s an interesting attempt to identify the source of cultural norms.


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