I can tell a straightforward, partisan story about inequality in the United States:
- The colonial United States was a remarkably egalitarian place — for white people, at least. But as the United States industrialized, from the Civil War through the Gilded Age and all the way until the Great Depression, the government made few efforts to redistribute wealth, and inequality grew and grew.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies reduced inequality dramatically and established a bipartisan consensus in favor of egalitarian redistribution that lasted for decades. Democrats controlled the White House and Congress for most of these years, and even the two Republican presidents elected during this time — Eisenhower and Nixon — basically accepted the New Deal consensus. During this time, inequality remained low and even declined slightly.
- But backlash against the Civil Rights Act ultimately shattered public confidence in Big Government, eventually leading to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. After this point inequality began to rise again, such that today we once again see levels of inequality we haven’t seen since the Gilded Age.
This is a common story — for example, it’s pretty much exactly the one Paul Krugman tells in The Conscience of a Liberal.
The something a little fishy about this story, though: Pretty much the same thing happened to inequality in most other industrialized countries, even though those countries each had a distinct history of partisan politics, with no New Deal and no Civil Rights Act.
Though these countries each have different electoral histories, there were major historical events they shared in common. Perhaps we ought look not at the rise and fall of political movements in specific countries, but at the impact world-spanning events like the Great Depression and World War II. This is the approach Thomas Picketty took in his book — very famous some years back — Capital in the Twenty-First Century. According to his analysis, the natural tendency of inequality is to rise over time, but that rise could be reversed if we were to implement redistributive policies like those most developed countries adopted during the Great Depression and — to an even greater extent — the World Wars.
Very Bad Things
But there’s a more fatalistic way of looking at things. Picketty writes as if governments are sort of like people that are free to make whatever policy choices they like. But what if we instead imagine that governments don’t make choices, but rather, react in deterministic or probabilistic ways to external circumstances? In that case, we might draw a disturbing conclusion — that the World Wars were necessary preconditions for reducing inequality; that the only way to one can buy mid-century levels of inequality is at the price of a hundred million lives.
That is basically Walter Scheidel’s thesis in The Great Leveler. He surveys the history of inequality — over a much longer time period than Picketty considers — and concludes that there is universal trend for societies (capitalist or otherwise) to become more unequal over time, interrupted only by several categories of disaster that Scheidel calls The Four Horsemen: War, Plague, Revolution, and Collapse. And in most cases, equality has been achieved not by making the poor better off, but by making everyone worse off in situations where the rich simply have more to lose. If that’s the price, then it’s doubtful whether equality is worth paying for.
It’s actually even a bit worse than that: Scheidel argues that even most wars and revolutions don’t reduce inequality. The full description of the Horsemen follows:
- Wars of total mobilization: Throughout history, most wars have mobilized only a small fraction of the total population and resources of the societies involved. And these wars do not tend to reduce inequality overall — they often reduce inequality somewhat on the losing side, if their ruling class gets wiped out and looted, but they tend to increase inequality on the winning side, as the spoils are usually distributed unequally. The exception is wars of total mobilization, such as World War I and World War II. These wars comprehensively reshaped the economies of the societies involved, and Scheidel shows that the more heavily involved various countries were in the World Wars, the less inequality they had in the middle of the twentieth century.
- Transformative revolution: Likewise, most revolutions throughout history have involved only a small fraction of a society’s population and resources, and few of those revolutions reduced inequality. The main exceptions were the massively lethal Communist revolutions of the twentieth century, especially in Russia, China, and Cambodia. These revolutions dramatically reduced inequality in these societies, at an astonishingly high price in human life. Other modern revolutions, even less violent socialist revolutions like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the recent Bolivaran Revolution in Venezuela, did not reduce inequality dramatically. Even the French Revolution that literally defined the term “Leftist” didn’t produce much égalité.
- Total societal collapse: Before the twentieth century, the most common “leveling” event was not war or revolution, but state failure. Scheidel demonstrates catalogues the same pattern again and again — from the Late Bronze Age collapse to China’s Tang dynasty, the fall of the Roman Empire, and the Mayan city-states — as great civilizations rise and produce increasing economic surplus, inequality increases, and equality is restored only when these civilizations collapse and the surplus is lost.
- Plague…sometimes: Somewhat in contrast to the other three Horsemen, plague seems to reduce inequality not by destroying wealth but by creating labor shortages, leading to increased wages…sometimes. The most severe plagues in history were those that struck the Incan and Aztec empires after European contact; we don’t have great economic records for that time period, but it seems that they reduced inequality greatly, and we know that there were major labor shortages in the colonial New world. We can be much more certain that the Black Death greatly reduced inequality in Western Europe and parts of Southern Europe, but not in Eastern Europe, other parts of Southern Europe, or in Egypt. The difference seems to be that in some countries, the ruling classes managed to impose institutions (e.g. serfdom) that prevented wages from rising.
One complaint I have about the book is that I would have liked to see some kind of Rawlsian, maximin welfare analysis. Scheidel repeatedly emphasizes that the largest gains in equality come from making the rich worse off, not from making the poor better off. But it’s clear that in some of the cases mentioned above, the (surviving) poor did end up at least slightly better off, and in some cases much better off. I would be interested in knowing, for example, how heavily one would have to weight the interests of the poor over the interests of the rich in order to make the Russian Revolution seem like a good thing.
Seeing Like a Cold-War-Era State
But that’s not my main issue. Scheidel’s story is extraordinarily grim — at least if you think equality is a good thing — but it is not airtight. He’s working with small sample sizes, and there are multiple stories you could tell, looking at the same data.
For example, rather than emphasizing the death toll of these events, one could emphasize the timing — the “historical moment”, if you will. If I were to tell a brief, chronological story of inequality throughout human history, it might go something like this:
- Hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian. But once we started doing things like growing crops and forming states, especially as we entered the Bronze Age, we began a tragic cycle wherein great civilizations would arise, bringing with them great inequality which disappeared only when those civilizations collapsed.
- By the time of the late Middle Ages (in the Old World), this cycle had more or less run its course. Total societal collapse wasn’t really a thing that happened any more, and inequality just kept going up and up. There was only one interruption to this trend: The Black Death. Once it had run its course, inequality once more began to rise.
- The wave finally broke in the early twentieth century. In this era, modern bureaucratic states, armed with high modernist confidence in the ability of often-socialist technocrats to use centralized authority to reshape societies for the public good, reduced inequality to levels human society hadn’t seen since before the Bronze Age. Sometimes redistributive policies were implemented in response to war, sometimes in response to economic downturns, and sometimes in violent revolutions, but they can be viewed as the outcome of a cohesive intellectual movement.
- For a variety of reasons, high modernism and socialism fell from favor in the late twentieth century, and without public confidence in the ability of states to reshape societies, the political will for large-scale redistribution no longer existed. Inequality resumed its historical trend and began to rise once more. And given that neither political collapse nor world war nor global pandemics seem like near-term possibilities, inequality will likely continue rising for the foreseeable future.
I don’t think there was ever anyone who called themselves a “high modernist”; that’s a retroactive label James C. Scott assigned the tendency of intellectual and policymakers in the early and mid-twentieth century to place too much confidence in expertise and top-down control. Everyone these days, from libertarians and conservatives, to liberals, socialists, and hippies is critical of “social engineering.” Even Steven Pinker, patron saint of Progress, distinguishes high modernism from Enlightenment liberalism:
The ideal of progress also should not be confused with the 20th-century movement to re-engineer society for the convenience of technocrats and and planners, which the political scientist James Scott calls Authoritarian High Modernism. The movement denied the existence of human nature, with its messy needs for beauty, nature, tradition, and social intimacy. Starting from a “clean tablecloth,” the modernists designed urban renewal projects that replaced vibrant neighborhoods with freeways, high-rises, windswept plazas, and brutalist architecture. “Mankind will be reborn,” they theorized, and “live in an ordered relation to the whole.” Though these developments were sometimes linked to the word progress, the usage was ironic: “progress” unguided by humanism is not progress.
I normally associate high modernism with Stalinism, the Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the Eugenics Movement, and any number of other massacres and failures. But the story of inequality in the twentieth century suggests that, at least some of the time, top-down social engineering does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It wasn’t just the World Wars themselves that slashed inequality, but government policies planned and implemented in response to those wars — and inequality continued to decline in most countries, albeit at a slower pace, for several decades after World War II ended.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, liberals in the United States have kept their economic amibitions limited — raise taxes here, subsidize education there, by and large letting the engines of capitalism run in hopes that it will, with some occasional steering, produce the results we want. What I take from Scheidel’s account is that this might not be good enough; that anyone who takes egalitarianism seriously needs to think very carefully about the costs and benefits of equality, and how much centralized action will be needed to achieve it. Likewise, Scheidel’s observations don’t bode well for left-anarchism or other decentralized leftist philosophies — throughout history, economic surplus has always led to inequality, and the only things that have ever counteracted it are mass death or government action.