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Environment and History

Sharing the Cost of Dike Maintenance in the South-Western Netherlands: Comparing 'Calamitous Polders' in Three 'States', 1715-1795

Piet van Cruyningen

Environment and History 23 (2017): 363-383. doi: 10.3197/096734017X14979473873858

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For early modern societies, distributing the costs of flood defences between the stakeholders in an equitable way was difficult. Institutions were abused by powerful groups to shift the financial burden to poorer groups. According to Epstein, such elite abuse of institutions was possible because in pre-modern states political and economic power were not separated, which made it possible for elite groups to hijack the decision-making process. By studying how three 'states' in the South-Western Netherlands distributed the high costs of dike maintenance, this paper partly confirms Epstein's thesis. No separation existed between political and economic power in the province of Zeeland and here this caused a stalemate because cities represented in the provincial government protected their elites' interests. In Holland and the territories of the States-General, however, taking quick and efficient measures for the repair and financing of sea defences was possible. Here the powerful cities had less significant interests in the areas concerned and were prepared to leave decision-making to technical and financial experts.

KEYWORDS: Netherlands, water management, institutions, state formation

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