Title: Fiscal Capacity, Legibility and Compliance with the State: Evidence from the French Napoleonic Cadaster.
Abstract: Can investments in state capacity generate greater voluntary compliance from society? In principle, building a tax system which is based on uniform measures of income and wealth should be welcomed by the population if it is perceived as promoting fairness in the distribution of taxation. However, scholars have pointed out that such top-down centralizing projects often meet bottom-up resistance and can be manipulated by local elites. Particularly in the case of fiscal reform, citizens may correctly anticipate that the government's intent is to increase taxation in the future. To answer this question, I investigate the gradual expansion of a large-scale centralizing investment in making society more fiscally legible to the state: the French Napoleonic cadaster. This comprehensive cadastral survey of individual land property was initiated in 1807 but took almost 50 years to complete due to the complexity of the task and political instability. In line with the rationalist ideals of the French Revolution, the official aim was to create a fairer distribution of the tax burden, based on objective measures of land value. I build a detailed dataset of the timing of cadastral surveys in more than 30,000 French towns and villages and combine it with data on non-compliance with the military police (gendarmes) between 1800 and 1850. Using a difference-in-difference identification strategy, I find that cadastral surveys decrease the likelihood of non-compliance with the police. This average impact is driven by locations where elites are not too powerful, suggesting that the beneficial impact of legibility on compliance is conditional on the strength of the elites.