International Trade and Institutional Change: Medieval Venice's Response to Globalization
NBER Working Paper No. 18288
International trade can have profound effects on domestic institutions. We examine this proposition in the context of medieval Venice circa 800-1350. We show that (initially exogenous) increases in long-distance trade enriched a large group of merchants and these merchants used their new-found muscle to push for constraints on the executive i.e., for the end of a de facto hereditary Doge in 1032 and for the establishment of a parliament or Great Council in 1172. The merchants also pushed for remarkably modern innovations in contracting institutions (such as the colleganza) that facilitated large-scale mobilization of capital for risky long-distance trade. Over time, a group of extraordinarily rich merchants emerged and in the almost four decades following 1297 they used their resources to block political and economic competition. In particular, they made parliamentary participation hereditary and erected barriers to participation in the most lucrative aspects of long-distance trade. We document this 'oligarchization' using a unique database on the names of 8,103 parliamentarians and their families' use of the colleganza. In short, long-distance trade first encouraged and then discouraged institutional dynamism and these changes operated via the impacts of trade on the distribution of wealth and power.
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