The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, by Walter Scheidel

I can tell a straightforward, partisan story about inequality in the United States:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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Book Reviews: Michael Young’s “Rise of the Meritocracy” and Chris Hayes’ “Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy.”

The 2019 college admissions scandal (sentencing underway) brought a wave of thinkpieces and cheeky tweets on the meritocracy, with the consistent message that America isn’t one.  Two critics of meritocracy got a lot of name-checks: Michael Young, who invented the term in Rise of the Meritocracy, and Chris Hayes, whose more recent Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy now seems shockingly prescient.  Both warn that meritocratic ideology is dangerous, but the dangers they each point to are quite different.

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Pluralism, Power, Mistakes, and Conflict.

The political theory of pluralism holds that power in liberal democracies is distributed among many different groups, whose interests conflict or align in ways that shift over time. It’s partially a descriptive theory, meant to explain how liberal democracies actually work, but also a prescriptive theory, in that most people who believe that pluralism is how things work also believe that pluralism is a good way for things to work.

Pluralists are often accused of ignoring the fact that some groups are consistently more powerful than others – in particular, Marxists believe that Capital is significantly more powerful than all other groups, and that Labor is the only other group powerful enough to challenge it. While not all Leftists are Marxists, most nevertheless believe in some similar “bipolar” model of power (in some specific cases called a “Power Elite” model): Corporations versus the People, the Kyriarchy versus the Oppressed, and so on. Far-right theorists don’t participate much in mainstream political science, but if they did, they would probably criticize pluralism using similar models – Secular Humanism versus Christianity, Jews versus Aryans, the Cathedral versus whoever neoreactionaries think the good guys are, the West versus the Caliphate, the Caliphate versus the West, and so on.

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