I am writing a blog post about knowledge banning, either by state censorship or by self-imposed censorship, like the US Comics Code Authority of the 20th century.

My focus is moral censorship, driven by cultural and religious taboos, and not military censorship defending state secrets.

Are there any good examples of moral censorship causing a dramatic economic decline on the imposers?

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    I doubt you'll find dramatic examples. The whole point of decline is that it's slow and at first imperceptible. Feb 24, 2013 at 12:42
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    @BrockAdams: Linked by whom? Feb 24, 2013 at 15:35
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    @FelixGoldberg, IIRC, people like Cato, Mark Twain, Heinlein, Bismark (I think), and Churchill all remarked that declining manners were a sure indicator of a society in collapse. I think Jefferson or Adams might have said this too. Feb 24, 2013 at 15:48
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    @FelixGoldberg Be careful phrasing it. It sounds like a candidate for "Subjective and argumentative" closing.
    – Adam Matan
    Feb 24, 2013 at 17:06
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    I'm very skeptical that anyone will be able to connect the dots; if you could, I think it would be a book contract. Although I think it is a fascinating question, I'd support a vote to close unless we can refine the scope to somethign that fits within the guidelines in the FAQ.
    – MCW
    Feb 25, 2013 at 15:42

2 Answers 2


Ottoman suppression of the printing press is sometimes discussed by economists as a contributor to that empire's very long and slow decline:

The Ottomans regulated the printing press heavily to prevent the loss it would have caused to the ruler’s net revenue by undermining the legitimacy provided by religious authorities . . . Although the Ottomans were by no means alone in suppressing the printing press, they sustained printing restrictions much longer than any other ruler in Europe. Even after starting to relax restrictions in 1726, they continued to heavily regulate the operation by granting permission only to selected individuals, prohibiting publication in religious subjects, and appointing a committee of scholars to review and proofread contents for accuracy.

These economists consider the economic impact of this three-century ban to be substantial. In some very technical language, they argue:

The heavy regulation of the printing press is puzzling because the Ottoman sultans could have raised the society's taxable surplus and thus their own revenue by allowing it to operate freely. The new technology would have raised the surplus directly through its effect on the market for books and indirectly through positive externalities that would have benefited other sectors. . . The indirect effects of mass printing on the aggregate surplus would also have been positive through economic development. As Buringh and van Zanden (2009: 409) have argued, books were "strategic commodities [that were] a crucial part of the information infrastructure and, in a way, the 'hardware' which stored all ideas." In the same way, noting the high correlation between reading ability and human capital formation, Baten and van Zanden (2008) have recently used per capita book production as a proxy variable for advanced literacy skills and found a significant relationship between book production and the onset of modern economic growth in Europe. By promoting mass printing technologies, the Sultan would have enhanced the production and accumulation of economic ideas that were essential for economic development and surplus generation.

Obviously, there was more to the Ottoman Decline than the ban on the printing press. Read the Wikipedia article if you want a full rundown of theories. But there is no doubt that retarding the dissemination of literacy and scientific progress at the dawn of the modern era was a bad economic policy.

Source: "The Political Economy of Mass Printing: Legitimacy, Revolt, and Technological Change in the Ottoman Empire." Metin M. Coşgel, Thomas J. Miceli, and Jared Rubin.


A historical example of "censorship" was the Spanish Inquisition. Spain was a thriving, "progressive" country until the Inquisition took hold, driving out the Jews, and intimidating other "free thinkers." Then Spain began a long decline lasting perhaps four centuries.

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    AFAIR the standard explanation of Spanish decline relates to long term secular inflation due to specie supply expansion—a feudal economy choking itself to death on gold. Feb 24, 2013 at 21:24
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    @SamuelRussell: The roots of Spain's decline lay in its reliance on gold rather than "enterpreneurship." "Choking itself to death on gold" may have been a consequence (rather than a cause) of the "Inquisition" mindset. I would even argue that the "censoriousness" that began toward the Jews was later extended to the "Amerindians."
    – Tom Au
    Feb 24, 2013 at 21:27
  • As far as censoriousness you'd need to go back to the Reconquista—so does censoriousness advance certain economies? Feb 24, 2013 at 23:32
  • a major cause for that decline was the deforestation of Spain in the effort to build its fleet. This led to changes in precipitation patterns, failing agriculture, industry was geared towards a single product (ships) almost nationwide, etc. etc.
    – jwenting
    Feb 25, 2013 at 11:05
  • +1! There is some controversy and healthy scholarly debate about "Spanish decline" (hinted at in the comments here) but overall I heartily agree - this is a prime example. However, note that it took at least a hundred years before the cumulative effects of the decline began to register and be perceived. Feb 25, 2013 at 12:57

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