When distance mattered: Geographic scale and the development of european representative assemblies

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Scholars investigating European state development have long placed a heavy emphasis on the role played by representative institutions. The presence of an active representative assembly, it is argued, allowed citizens and rulers to contract over raising revenue and accessing credit. It may also have had implications for economic growth. These arguments have in turn been used to draw broad implications about the causal effect of analogous institutions in other places and during other time periods. But if assemblies had such clear efficiency benefits, why did they not become a universal phenomenon in Europe prior to the nineteenth century? I argue that in an era of costly communications and transport, an intensive form of political representative was much easier to sustain in geographically compact polities. This simple fact had important implications for the pattern of European state formation, and it may provide one reason why small states were able to survive despite threats from much larger neighbors. I test several relevant hypotheses using an original data set that provides the first broad view of European representative institutions in the medieval and early modern eras. I combine this with a geographic information system data set of state boundaries and populations in Europe between 1250 and 1750. The results suggest a strong effect of geographic scale on the format of political representation. The broader implication of this result is to provide a reminder that if institutions help solve contracting problems, ultimately, the maintenance of institutions may itself depend on ongoing transactions costs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)625-643
Number of pages19
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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