The Latin American Equilibrium
JAMES A. ROBINSON
ONE OF THE enduring puzzles of Latin American history is its comparative economic performance.1 At the time of conquest and settlement, though Latin American countries were relatively poor and economically backward compared to their colonists from Spain and Portugal, the gap was small in relation to what it is today. For example, in 1500, Spain’s income per capita was probably about 50 percent greater than the Latin American average. Today, average income in Spain is about 300 percent greater.2 Even more puzzling, at the time of conquest, the most prosperous parts of the Americas were not those which are today the richest. In 1492, it was not Canada, the United States, or the Southern Cone of Latin America that were the most economically advanced; it was Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia with their complex centralized societies.3 Though the technology of the Mexicas or Tawantinsuyu may not have been very advanced by modern standards, they had developed extraordinary abilities to provide public goods, irrigation works, and infrastructure, and they had systems of taxation and resource mobilization that would be the envy of many modern developing countries.