Life and taxes

A fascinating look at the birth and life of policies and institutions, and of their surprising multigenerational effects.


In colonial Nigeria in the last years of the 19th century, a strange quirk of history led the British rulers to draw an arbitrary boundary line along the 7˚10′ N line of latitude, separating the population into two separate administrative districts.

Below the line, the colonial government raised money by levying taxes on imported alcohol and other goods that came through Southern Protectorate’s sea ports. Above the line, the administrators of the landlocked Northern Protectorate had no sea ports, and instead raised money through direct taxes. In the areas near the border, this took the form of a simple poll tax, where tax officials collected from each citizen the equivalent of between $4 and $20 in today’s dollars.

Could this seemingly minor difference—created over a century ago by a long-defunct colonial administration, and long ago erased by subsequent administrative divisions—possibly still matter today?

Yes, it could, according to Daniel Berger, a PhD student in politics at NYU. Berger’s paper, Taxes, Institutions and Local Governance: Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Colonial Nigeria, finds that the “simple act of having to collect taxes caused governments to be forced to build the capacity which can now provide basic government services.” As a result, governance today is “significantly better” in areas just above the line than in those just below it.

Originally published at

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