Historical Heresy

Famed Historian Angus Deaton:

It is sometimes supposed … that rich people have always lived healthier and longer lives than poor people. That this supposition is generally false is vividly shown by Harris who compares the life expectancies at birth of the general population in England with that of [rich] ducal families. From the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 19th century, there was little obvious trend in general life expectancy. For the ducal families up to 1750, life expectancy was no higher than, and sometimes lower than, the life expectancy of the general population. However, during the century after 1750, the life prospects of the aristocrats pulled away from those of the general population, and by 1850–74, they had an advantage of about 20 years. After 1850, the modern increase in life expectancy became established in the general population. Johansson tells a similar story for the British royals compared to the general population, though the royals began with an even lower life expectancy at birth. …

Men die at higher rates than women at all ages after conception. Although women around the world report higher morbidity [= sickness] than men, their mortality [= death] rates are usually around half of those of men. … Women get sick and men get dead. … Biology cannot be the whole explanation. The female advantage in life expectancy in the US is now smaller than for many years, 5.3 years in 2008 compared with 7.8 years in 1979, and it has been argued that there was little or no differential in the preindustrial world. The contemporary decline in female advantage is largely driven by cigarette smoking; women were slower to start smoking than men, and have been slower to quit. (more)

This is a provocative hypothesis, but I don’t believe it. That is, I don’t believe that in general status and gender were unrelated to mortality until the industrial revolution. Chimp females live longer than chimp males, and I’ll bet that holds for foragers too. I’ll also bet that in both chimps and foragers high status tends to correlate with lower mortality.

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  • rapscallion

    Do you have any specific data that contradicts Deaton’s data? If not, I’m quite surprised that you think your general intuition is a better guide to the truth than the result of Deaton’s research on this specific matter. I also think the trend he’s identified fits pretty well into a historical story where the rich went from being the tough, violent guys to being the smart guys.

  • burger flipper

    Obviously you’re not gonna buy the smoking hypothesis given you don’t believe smoking affects mortality.

  • Blake Riley

    Slightly odd that you call a former president of the American Economics Association a historian…

  • What the other commenters said, plus the post title is odd.

  • rapscallion, the health status relation is today extremely robust. And I think I recall that it often applies to other animals.

    burger, you misreport my smoking beliefs.

    Blake, there are economic historians.

    • rapscallion

      When I think of Deaton the first thing that comes to mind is his hardcore quant work in microeconomics, not his historical research.

  • With ‘injustice’ right in the title, I would expect this paper is more about signalling rejection for injustice than about getting the right answer.

    There’s probably a way to reconcile the two theories. The concept ‘life expectancy’ is usually much abused, and if that’s the case here…

    For example, perhaps the rich in fact died way less due to disease, but died more due to in-fighting over power, and these happened to about balance out.

    “the best guess is that, perhaps starting as early as the 16th century, but accumulating over time, there was a series of practical improvements and innovations in health, including inoculation against smallpox”

    My best guess is that society is way more complicated than this. This is a factor among, say, fifty factors, all of which feed back with each other. You can’t just blithely guess that one of them is key and then base an entire paper on it. Not and reliably get the right answer, anyway.

    For example, being low-status causes stress. Stress harms the immune system. Ergo, being high-status is directly good for your health. Though losing high office is worse than simply not having it. Apes sometimes let themselves starve to death after losing the top spot.

    The fact I can immediately come up with something that Deaton didn’t take into account suggests A: it probably really is a signalling paper and B: there’s lots of other relevant factors I could think of, given time.

  • Curt Adams

    Certainly at the very top level of kings and emperors and their immediate family you see some big lifespan disadvantages to being at the top. History is replete with monarchs and their kin dying in wars, coups, and revolutions, plus a lot of mysterious deaths suspected due to poisoning. In the most extreme example of kings whose successors came from their harems, it wasn’t unheard of for the victor to exterminate his half-brothers and sometimes even brothers to improve his grasp on the throne.

    At the next level down, I don’t recall as much succession intrigue, but nobles often fell to the suspicions – sometimes well-founded – of their monarchs, plus were still subject to replacement in war and revolution. Such violence today is much more difficult and frequently wouldn’t work anyway, so the wealthy have been freed of that disadvantage. I agree with the other posters that you need some cause-of-death analysis to take this further.

    • Doug S.

      You still do see those kinds of intrigues in countries ruled by dictatorships…

      • Greg Clark wrote in “A Farewell to Alms” about that dynamic reducing the numbers of the aristocracy, letting upper-middle class farmers populate the country.

  • Tom

    When dealing with older life expectancy metrics, I also wonder about the impact of infant and small child death. Given the medical state of art c. 1700, I’m not sure being high-status would confer a substantial advantage in mitigating the effect of those on life expectancy. I’d be more curious to see if life expectancy at age 5 or 10 was the same across classes.

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  • Lord

    I would just note that Louis XV was Louis XIV’s great great grandson, the intervening generations being wiped out by disease. Hard to prevent something when you don’t have a theory how it operates.

  • I would be very sceptical of data records from the 16th to 19th century, especially about infant mortality. Also, Deaton uses two different data source for this claim, so there is no way of ensuring comparablity. There are also other factors to consider such as inbreeding of wealthy or royal families.

    In all, a very loose evidence base to make such claims, given the intution and arguments to the contrary. How could the wealthy NOT live longer? What could they possibly do to make their lives shorter? The answers to these questions would provide much better insights (eg. were royals obliged to lead armies in battle at a young age? Were assissination attempts common?)

    • Steven Ehrbar

      What could they possibly do to make their lives shorter?

      Hire doctors who believed in bloodletting to treat their illnesses.

  • Titles of nobility were at bottom military titles. When did this end? Roughly in the middle of the 18th century. George II of England, for example, was the last British monarch to lead an army into battle in 1743.

  • Er – isn’t it just about male young adults of aristocratic families, dying at war?

  • Steven Ehrbar

    I’m perfectly willing to believe the result of the studies of ducal families, because Pierre Charles Alexandre Louis, in his statistical analysis of tuberculosis and typhoid patients in 1835, had already discovered the rich who got those diseases were more likely to die than the poor who got those diseases.

    Why? People who got sick and who could afford doctors got treated with bloodletting. People who got sick and who could not afford doctors did not. The former, weakened by the blood loss, were more likely to die than the latter.

    So, sure, the rich had better food, shelter, etc., that translated into longer potential lifespans. But they could also hire doctors when they got ill, which helped kill them earlier than they would have died.

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