It is one of the great contradictions of our time: the desire for greater equality and at the same time continued stability. According to Walter Scheidel, thousands of years of history suggest that these two goals are quite simply irreconcilable.
Providing a readable and quirky history of economic inequality from the great apes to the modern day, The Great Leveler argues that the “Four Horsemen” of violence – war, revolution, state collapse and plague – have been at the root of every significant historical period of falling inequality. The present uptick in inequality in economies such as the US is, the book suggests, a result of a protracted period of stability following the Second World War. According to Scheidel, there is no “easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality”. Only violence is capable of doing that; something that, as Steven Pinker argued in The Better Angels of Our Nature, has been trending down over time.
On the one hand, Scheidel’s thesis is not particularly shocking. Large scale redistributions of income and wealth would, after all, require stamping on the property rights of the haves for the sake of the have-nots. That’s unlikely to happen voluntarily.
On the other hand, while it is true that throughout history periods of declining inequality have often been preceded by violent disruption, there are also cases in which violence has delivered the opposite. Violence can create concentrations of wealth as well as redistributions. Parts of the British aristocracy, for example, achieved their position as a reward for military victory. Any tour of an English country house can tell you that. Even Scheidel acknowledges that it takes a particular kind or extent of violence to reduce inequality. Destruction can easily amount to nowt.
Although The Great Leveler paints our prospects in pessimistic hues, not all the lights have yet gone out. Branko Milanovic’s recent book, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, is significantly more upbeat. It points to benign as well as malign ways through which inequality can be reduced. In its favour is the fact that democracy and the belief that we are all born equal have a much firmer hold today than in past centuries. Concerns can much more easily be addressed through the ballot box.
It’s also possible to imagine ways in which, today, greater equality can be achieved without trampling on individual property rights and liberties. Enhancing the freedom of individuals to cross borders, and empowering women to be in charge of their own fertility, thereby reducing pressure on scarce resources, are two important means. It is just unfortunate, then, that such freedom-loving measures have become such political hot potatoes.
The more this remains the case, the more Scheidel’s conjecture seems likely: that violence will be the most likely means through which inequality is reduced. As he concludes, “all of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions it was only ever brought forth in sorrow”.
While this book will not brighten your year, and is certainly worth questioning, it is well worth the read. It is, in a word, gripping.
Victoria Bateman is fellow and director of studies in economics, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.
The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
By Walter Scheidel
Princeton University Press, 528pp, £27.95
Published 22 February 2017