Growth and Inequality in Italy Over the Long Run (1871-2001): Trends, Patterns, Implications

AuthorEmanuele Felice
PositionProfessor of Economics and Economic History, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain
European Integration - Realities and Perspectives 2012
Growth and Inequality in Italy
Over the Long Run (1871-2001): Trends, Patterns, Implications
Emanuele Felice
Abstract: This article presents estimates of social and economic indicators for Italy and its regions, from
1871 to 2001: life expectancy, education (literacy and years of schooling), per capita Gdp, and the human
development index. I discuss State intervention in pr omoting convergence and argue that this was more
effective i n life expectancy, important but inadequate in education, more expensive and less s uccessful in
Gdp. In human development, convergence took place fr om the late nineteenth century until the 1970s, then
significantly slowed down. A broad interpretative hypothesis, based on the distinction between passive and
active modernization, is proposed to account for the patterns.
Keywords: Italy; Regional development; Hdi; Gdp; State intervention
Les observations sont l’histoire de la physique, et les systèmes en sont la fable.
(Montesquieu, Pensées, no. 163)
1. Introduction
Italy’s regional inequality has been vastly debated, but the reconstruction of the historical pattern is
not satisfactory yet. In terms of Gdp, there is by now large consensus on some basic facts regarding
the previous century, which can be summarized as follows:
North-South differentials increased in the
first half, until the Second World War, whereas at the same time regional differences decreased within
the three economic macro-regions (North-West, North-East and Center, South or Mezzogiorno);
South’s convergence took place in the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s, but came to a halt in
the 1970s and the Mezzogiorno remained far below the national average, unlike the north-eastern and
central regions which converged toward the North-West in the last decades. Still there is uncertainty
surrounding post-Unification Italy, the determinants over the short and the long run, as well as specific
economic indicators and sometimes the exact figures and the pace of convergence and divergence; but
not the general pattern mentioned above. This speaks about the failure of southern Italy to catch-up
with the rest of the country over the long-run: all the more a dismal result, because the problem of the
South (or questione meridionale) has been in the political agenda for over a century, the convergence
of the economic boom had raised many hopes to bridge the economic divide, and since – not least –
massive regional policies were pursued by the Italian state throughout the second half of the twentieth
century. More recently, frustration left room to resignation, from which in the last decades a new
approach to the ‘Southern Question’ has emerged: based on the category of ‘diversity’, rather than of
‘backwardness’, when it comes to compare the South with the rest of the country. With important
many ‘meridionalists’
got progressively involved in this reconsideration:
once it was
Professor of Economics and Economic History, Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain, Address: Plaça Cívica
08193 Bellaterra, Cerdanyola del Vallès, Tel.: +34 93 581 11 11, Corresponding author:
Felice, “Regional Development.” With reference to Post-Unification Italy, see also Fenoaltea, “Peeking Backward.”
E.g. Galasso, Il Mezzogiorno.
As scholars on southern Italy are usua lly called: such a label may be analogous to those (orientalists, africanists) proposed
for researchers on countries with struc tural characteristics supposedly diff erent from those of the western world, and which
therefore may also obey different rules of historical and social inquiry. See Said, Orientalism.
Performance and Risks in the European Economy
realized that western progress was partly denied to the South, this turned out to be unworthy or
undesirable. As efficaciously noted, these meridionalists looked like such a husband who, having been
betrayed by his wife, would go around speaking against all the women in the world.
This paper assumes that (western) progress – here called ‘modernization’ – is worthy and, after all,
desirable; thus the lack of convergence in per capita Gdp should be regarded for what it is, a
disappointing (and not at all inescapable) conclusion. But things are a bit more complicated and here
we propose a more articulated picture to account for the inequality pattern in Italy’s regions. First,
progress or modernization has many facets and surely it should not be measured only in terms of per
capita Gdp. Secondly, the South’s performance could not be so gloomy, when considering other
measures such as life expectancy or human development. Not least, so far very few research has been
made in order to relate the different facets of modernization, and even less to build an interpretative
framework which would allow for their different paths: scarce empirical work for southern Italy, few
historical analysis for other regions and countries too.
The article aims to move some steps toward this goal, via reviewing and testing the hypothesis of
‘passive modernization’ first advanced by Luciano Cafagna more than twenty years ago, and thus by
presenting and discussing the pattern of social indicators in Italy’s regions over the long run (1871-
2001) in view of this possible interpretative framework. In the following paragraph the basic concepts
about active and passive modernization will be exposed and partly re-formulated with regard to
regional analysis. The second, third, and fourth paragraph will focus on the historical evidence for
Italy’s regions, by examining the regional figures for life expectancy, education, and income and
human development respectively, and by discussing their convergence and determinants. The last
paragraph will propose a synthesis and a draft scheme to account for state intervention and passive
modernization in Italy’s regions, to be possibly tested in other contexts.
2. On Modernization
We define modernization in a way more inclusive than the strict economic approach. This latter is
focused on technological progress, whose result – broadly speaking – is the rise in productivity and
thus in per capita income: accordingly, per capita (or per worker) Gdp should be taken as the prime
measure of modernization. To Gdp (or ‘resources’), we add two more ‘dimensions’,
following the
capability and human development approach as defined among the others by Sen.
One dimension is
life expectancy, or ‘longevity’, which reflects a broad range of social characteristic and dynamics,
such as the health systems and conditions, the spread of basic hygienic infrastructures, as well as in
part the demographic transition. Many would agree that these are crucial aspects of modernity, not
entirely neither properly incorporated in Gdp measures; moreover, we should assume that to live a
long and healthy life is by itself a positive goal of every human being. The third dimension is
‘knowledge’, here measured through education (literacy, school attendance, per capita years of
schooling): again, the spread of mass education, primary and later secondary and tertiary, is another
remarkable feature of modernity, not directly included in Gdp accounts.
Resources, longevity, and knowledge are often correlated: education may be a determinant of Gdp
growth – literature would be huge, from the early remarks by Cipolla
or Abramovitz
up to the
bayeasian models
– but indeed it has been argued that longevity too may favour a rise in per capita
Gdp, for example via increasing productivity, i.e. human capital accumulation.
In turn, per capita Gdp
E.g. Cassano, Il pensiero.
Cafagna, “Modernizzazione,” p. 240.
As the components of the human development index are usually referred to in theoretical literature.
Sen, Commodities and Capabilities; Anand and Sen, “Human Development Index.”
Cipolla, Literacy and Development.
Abramovitz, “Catching up.”
Sala-i-Martin et al., “Determinants.”
Acemoglu and Johnson, “Disease and Development,” are proba bly the last ones; Barro and Lee, “Sources,” the first ones, at
least via econometric testing.

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