Walter Scheidel

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Gained much insight early in the year from reading Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, which analyzes how wealth inequality can be interrupted and reversed, his analysis stretching back far earlier than the Gini coefficient to the time of the development of rudimentary tools like spears.

How do we make the world more equal? To put it simply, through great pain, unless you’re into mass mobilization warfare, plague, bloody revolution or societal collapse. (I think Steve Bannon is deeply in love with at least two or three of these options, though not to make the economy more equal.) Of course, leveling doesn’t necessarily mean the raising of all boats but sometimes the sinking of every last ship. Scheidel asserts that wealth inequality has been the logical outcome of stable societies, with leveling occurring for relatively brief spells by virtue of the sweep of history or the spread of Influenza. 

The book isn’t entirely resigned, believing that perhaps past won’t be prologue, holding out hope that human progress can find new means of mitigation. Of course, sitting here at this moment in time, that doesn’t look like the plausible near-term scenario.

Scheidel has just published a smart essay for Aeon wondering anew if we can arrive at a more-equal playing field with trampling all the players. He isn’t sanguine about our chances, thinking genetic engineering may further complicate matters. An excerpt:

History offers very little comfort to those in search of peaceful levelling. To be sure, it is perfectly possible to reduce inequality at the margins: if Latin American countries have done it, the US, UK or Australia certainly ought to be able to accomplish the same, using an array of policy measures, from fiscal interventions, basic incomes and the targeting of concealed offshore wealth, to carefully focused investment in education and campaign finance reform. However, policymaking does not take place in a vacuum, and not everything that worked well for the postwar generation, say, could be easily implemented in today’s more globally integrated, competitive and deregulated environment. Throughout history, truly substantial compressions of inequality invariably had much darker origins, and no similarly powerful alternative mechanisms have since emerged.

It is always tempting to assume that the lessons of history are no longer relevant because the world has changed so much – as indeed it has. But we must bear in mind that the exact same claim could have been made back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when inequality declined even as economies boomed and the middle classes thrived. There was no obvious reason why this should ever change: and yet change it did. It is just as likely as not that we are currently riding another upward wave in the concentration of income and wealth, continuing a pattern that stretches back thousands of years. In the not-too-distant future, robotics, genetic engineering and biomechatronic enhancements of the human body could well create inequalities we can barely even imagine. And if they do, will it all end in yet another unforeseen, sudden and dramatic violent turn?


Was planning on stopping by my favorite bookstore on Wednesday or Thursday to pick up a copy of Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Just as an extra nudge, the author published an article on the topic today in The Atlantic. As you might have guessed from the subtitle, it is not a hopeful piece. “With the rarest of exceptions, great reductions in inequality were only ever brought forth in sorrow,” the author writes.

No candidate was particularly honest about the economy and wealth inequality in the recent Presidential election. In one debate during the Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton argued that the free markets had allowed post-war America to create an upward trajectory for those seeking a solid middle-class existence. Well, not exactly.

The free market was important, sure, but it can’t be forgotten that progressive tax rates reached 90% during the Eisenhower Administration, a figure even your average liberal today would say is draconian, and that money was redistributed via investment in those who had less, often through education, social welfare and infrastructure development. Without flourishes from both capitalism and socialism, the level playing field that inched into the 1970s never would have existed for more than two decades. And if you remove World War II from the equation, it never would have happened at all. 

Scheidel doesn’t relate his thoughts on the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era in this article, though hopefully he does in his book.

The opening:

Calls to make America great again hark back to a time when income inequality receded even as the economy boomed and the middle class expanded. Yet it is all too easy to forget just how deeply this newfound equality was rooted in the cataclysm of the world wars.

The pressures of total war became a uniquely powerful catalyst of equalizing reform, spurring unionization, extensions of voting rights, and the creation of the welfare state. During and after wartime, aggressive government intervention in the private sector and disruptions to capital holdings wiped out upper-class wealth and funneled resources to workers; even in countries that escaped physical devastation and crippling inflation, marginal tax rates surged upward. Concentrated for the most part between 1914 and 1945, this “Great Compression” (as economists call it) of inequality took several more decades to fully run its course across the developed world until the 1970s and 1980s, when it stalled and began to go into reverse.

This equalizing was a rare outcome in modern times but by no means unique over the long run of history. Inequality has been written into the DNA of civilization ever since humans first settled down to farm the land. Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake, and by the time these crises had passed, the gap between rich and poor had shrunk.•