I am a Burkean conservative. As an implication of this, I hate the French Revolution with a passion. It was a disaster which afflicted Europe ever since, and was a direct influence of one of the twin evils of the 20th century.
I came into Daron Acemoglu, et al’s The Consequences of Radical Reform: The French Revolution with that mindset.
The French Revolution of 1789 had a momentous impact on neighboring countries. The French Revolutionary armies during the 1790s and later under Napoleon invaded and controlled large parts of Europe. Together with invasion came various radical institutional changes. French invasion removed the legal and economic barriers that had protected the nobility, clergy, guilds, and urban oligarchies and established the principle of equality before the law. The evidence suggests that areas that were occupied by the French and that underwent radical institutional reform experienced more rapid urbanization and economic growth, especially after 1850. There is no evidence of a negative effect of French invasion. Our interpretation is that the Revolution destroyed (the institutional underpinnings of) the power of oligarchies and elites opposed to economic change; combined with the arrival of new economic and industrial opportunities in the second half of the 19th century, this helped pave the way for future economic growth. The evidence does not provide any support for several other views, most notably, that evolved institutions are inherently superior to those ‘designed’; that institutions must be ‘appropriate’ and cannot be ‘transplanted’; and that the civil code and other French institutions have adverse economic effects.
To be honest, I think that the final sentence in the abstract is taking things quite a bit too far. For the paper to show that “evolved institutions are not inherently superior to those ‘designed,’” the “evolved” institutions that did so much worse have to be, well, evolved. The problem here, however, is that 1790s Prussia, Russia, and Austro-Hungary were far from spontaneous orders—rather, they were quite authoritarian given their technological constraints. When Thaddeus Kosciuszko tried to free Poland as he had helped to do in America a decade and a half earlier, the Prussians in particular were livid, as they knew that a free Poland would draw serfs (who could become citizens) and allow Poland to become the central European industrial power that Prussia wanted to become. So instead of freeing the serfs or opening up additional avenues to spontaneous order, the Prussians clamped down and helped destroy the Polish revolution.
The work that Acemoglu, et al, have done does show that French economic institutions were superior to serfdom, at least in the long run. There is value in that, and they point out several times that they are not making a stand on the French Revolution as a whole, but instead are investigating the economic results of policy changes. The problem, however, is that I see a problem in the comparison. Basically, we’re comparing the states and principalities around Europe during the French Revolution (excluding France), and seeing how they did afterwards. That’s a reasonable thing to do, and based on that comparison, one result of the French Revolution was that French-occupied territories tended to have better economic development a half-century or so later than those with relatively less French influence. One major exception here is Great Britain, though they were still included in the data set, so the results include this outlier.
But there’s an alternative which I think would have been greatly superior to both setups as they were: what the British and Americans accomplished and what the Polish tried to do: develop government-limiting institutions, free their populaces, and promote liberty and order as opposed to Terror and Napoleon. That would have been significantly better than what did happen.