Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition to matter today, but it does

This is one of the rare incidents when I directly quote from a paper, but this was too good a summary to be missed. And if you don’t get the reference, watch this video:

group of researchers tried to identify the long-run effects of religious persecution by the Spanish Inquisition. It may surprise you, but they found that areas of Spain where religious persecution was more prevalent tend to be poorer today, two hundred years after the Spanish Inquisition ended.

Inquisitorial intensity in Seville (left) and GDP per capita today (right)

Source: Drelichman et al. (2021)

Is this just a case of accidental correlation? It seems not, because their research uncovered a possible transmission mechanism from religious oppression to economic performance. And this transmission mechanism has implications for today’s political climate.

Note that the Spanish inquisition was active in an era of (relatively) rapid technological progress from the Renaissance to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. One of the key ingredients of technological progress is diversity of thought and the ability to think freely and out of the box without fear of ridicule. 

The persecution by the Spanish Inquisition led to two things. First, it significantly reduced trust between people. People were increasingly afraid to say what they thought and express opposition to the mainstream opinions of the powerful. Second, it reduced the incentive to become educated. A key result of a good education is the ability to think independently and question authority. But if you are living in an environment where opposition is repressed by the authorities, getting an education may become a dangerous enterprise.

Hence, areas of Spain that were more heavily influenced by the Spanish Inquisition up to this day show a lower level of trust and education. And that means that there are fewer skilled workers for businesses to be found and thus fewer businesses go to these places to create jobs and prosperity.

The problem is that today, we are in the middle of the fourth industrial revolution, this time driven by automation and digitalisation. And the people who benefit from this era of technological progress will be people who are well-educated and open-minded who do not fear the competition of other people but rather like to work together with them in teams.

But all around the globe, we experience a rising aversion to the other, be it Muslims in India that are harassed by the Hindu majority, infidels in Muslim countries, or foreigners and refugees in countries all over Europe and the United States. There is clearly a qualitative difference between the persecution of Infidels by Muslim extremists and resentment against foreigners and immigrants in the United States. But the effect is the same: A loss of trust between people. If you speak inconvenient truths in the United States, you will only be “canceled” and not beheaded, but the effect on public discourse is the same. We are suppressing diversity of opinion that is a foundation of innovation, not just freedom.

Similarly, and very close to my heart, we live in an age where data, facts, and scientific inquiry have become increasingly ridiculed. Instead, “lived experience” and how things “feel” to an individual are starting to supersede objective data and inquiry. Just because your “lived experience” doesn’t indicate that the climate is changing for the worse doesn’t mean climate change isn’t real. And just because you “feel” like you didn’t get a fair chance in life doesn’t mean that the country you live in is institutionally racist. 

And don’t get me started about the pandemic where individualism and a lack of respect for scientific evidence and expert opinions literally killed people

It is high time we fight ideology and personal opinions and put data and empirical evidence back in the driver’s seat because if we don’t we will all end up poorer, both spiritually and economically. That is a key lesson of the Spanish Inquisition we should keep in mind.