In Box

Life After Death

How the plague made modern Europe.

Ask someone to identify the foundations of modern Western civilization, and expect to hear the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. But as watershed periods in the development of Europe, all three may pale in comparison to the Black Death. According to economists Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth, the 14th-century plague -- which wiped out between one-third and one-half of the continent's population -- may have been the factor most responsible for producing European prosperity.

The question Voigtländer and Voth take on in an article for the Review of Economic Studies has long vexed historians: How did Europe go from a global backwater around 1400 -- defined by political fragmentation, poverty, and widespread illiteracy -- to the most prosperous region the world had ever known by the dawn of the 18th century?

It wasn't primarily new ideas or technology, the authors argue -- it was the plague. According to their logic, incomes should fall as populations rise, barring a major increase in available resources. Conversely, when a population decreases due to war or disease, incomes go up as there's more available land and labor becomes scarce.

The effect is usually temporary. But the population shock of the Black Death was so dramatic that it caused a permanent increase in incomes -- an estimated 30 percent in Western Europe between 1500 and 1700. The authors note that China, in terms of farm wages, urbanization, and economic output, was pretty much on par with Europe when the Black Death hit. Had Europe's population continued to grow unchecked during this period, Voigtländer says, it would have been at about the development level of China in 1700. Instead, Europe by 1700 had raced far ahead, setting the stage for its next breakthrough: the innovation and rapid increase in trade that began during the Industrial Revolution decades later.

What does this mean for today? Thankfully, few mass-casualty events on the scale of the plague have occurred in recent centuries. Plagues act as what Voth calls a "neutron bomb," removing people but relatively little in the way of economic capital (unlike, say, the two 20th-century world wars, which caused massive property damage and tens of millions of deaths).

The closer parallel may be AIDS. A 2005 article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics by Alwyn Young argued that high death rates from HIV could lead to higher incomes in South Africa. Another parallel might be modern China, whose recent growth has been aided by a draconian one-child policy that prevented hundreds of millions of births over the last three decades.

Fortunately, no one's yet gone all apocalyptic when searching for a solution to Europe's current economic woes.

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In Box

The Things They Carried: The Congolese Rebel

Maj. John Imani Nzenze, an M23 rebel commander, reveals what's in his camouflage backpack. 

Maj. John Imani Nzenze is a commander in the Democratic Republic of the Congo's M23 movement, a Tutsi rebel group of army defectors that captured the eastern provincial capital of Goma late last year and is now threatening to plunge Congo into another protracted war. Foreign Policy caught up with Nzenze at M23's military headquarters in Rumangabo -- about 30 miles north of Goma, inside the famous Virunga National Park -- where rebel forces were awaiting tense peace negotiations with the government. The camp is filled with the spoils of the rebellion: a jeep that belonged to Congolese President Joseph Kabila, anti-aircraft guns, heavy artillery, piles of ammunition and rockets, and even a German-made tank. Nzenze, who boasts of leading a few dozen rebels to beat back hundreds of Congolese soldiers in one of last year's pitched battles, says everything they didn't capture from the Congolese army came from the black market in Dubai. One thing is clear: Even in a remote jungle camp, today's rebels are increasingly wired for war. "Technology is our advantage," the major says. Here's what he carries in his camouflage backpack.