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Death or Taxes? The Political Economy of Sanitation Expenditure in Nineteenth Century Britain


Chapman, Jonathan Neil (2015) Death or Taxes? The Political Economy of Sanitation Expenditure in Nineteenth Century Britain. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/Z93T9F5F .


This thesis consists of three papers studying the relationship between democratic reform, expenditure on sanitation public goods and mortality in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. During this period decisions over spending on critical public goods such as water supply and sewer systems were made by locally elected town councils, leading to extensive variation in the level of spending across the country. This dissertation uses new historical data to examine the political factors determining that variation, and the consequences for mortality rates.

The first substantive chapter describes the spread of government sanitation expenditure, and analyzes the factors that determined towns' willingness to invest. The results show the importance of towns' financial constraints, both in terms of the available tax base and access to borrowing, in limiting the level of expenditure. This suggests that greater involvement by Westminster could have been very effective in expediting sanitary investment. There is little evidence, however, that democratic reform was an important driver of greater expenditure.

Chapter 3 analyzes the effect of extending voting rights to the poor on government public goods spending. A simple model predicts that the rich and the poor will desire lower levels of public goods expenditure than the middle class, and so extensions of the right to vote to the poor will be associated with lower spending. This prediction is tested using plausibly exogenous variation in the extent of the franchise. The results strongly support the theoretical prediction: expenditure increased following relatively small extensions of the franchise, but fell once more than approximately 50% of the adult male population held the right to vote.

Chapter 4 tests whether the sanitary expenditure was effective in combating the high mortality rates following the Industrial Revolution. The results show that increases in urban expenditure on sanitation-water supply, sewer systems and streets-was extremely effective in reducing mortality from cholera and diarrhea.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:British economic history; political economy; mortality
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Humanities and Social Sciences
Major Option:Social Science
Minor Option:Political Science
Awards:John O. Ledyard Prize For Graduate Research In Social Science, 2013
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Hoffman, Philip T.
Thesis Committee:
  • Hoffman, Philip T. (chair)
  • Snowberg, Erik
  • Rosenthal, Jean-Laurent
  • Hirsch, Alexander V.
Defense Date:11 May 2015
Funding AgencyGrant Number
National Science Foundation1357995
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:05282015-204221403
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:8908
Deposited By: Jonathan Chapman
Deposited On:26 Feb 2016 21:56
Last Modified:04 Oct 2019 00:08

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