A Summary of “The Great Leveler” by Walter Scheidel

Walter Scheidel, an Austrian historian from Stanford University has taken time off from his main interest (the Romans) to write a powerful, and pretty depressing, book on inequality.

His book is called The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century. Its argument is:

For thousands of years, history has alternated between long stretches of rising or high and stable inequality interspersed with violence compressions. For six or seven decades from 1914 to the 1970s or 1980s, both the world’s rich economies and those countries who had fallen to communist regimes experienced some of the most intense levelling in recorded history.

He identifies four sources of compression – the ‘Four Horsemen’:

  1. Mass mobilization warfare
  2. Transformative revolution
  3. State failure
  4. Lethal pandemics

Just like their biblical counterparts, they went forth to ‘take peace from the earth’ and ‘kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.’ Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one another, they produced outcomes that to contemporaries often seemed nothing short of apocalyptic. Hundreds of millions perished in their wake. And by the time the dust had settled the gap between the haves and have nots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.

In this, Scheidel echoes Piketty’s account of the equalizing impact of two world wars, but whereas Piketty then turns to policy-based ways to reduce inequality, such as a wealth tax, Scheidel sees history as much more of a straitjacket. He argues that

the traditional violent levellers currently lie dormant and are unlikely to return in the foreseeable future. No similarly potent alternative mechanisms of equalization have emerged… There does not seem to be an easy way to vote, regulate, or teach our way to significantly greater equality.

He summarizes the policy proposals of would-be Levellers (a group which includes Oxfam). On the revenue side these include:

Income should be taxed in a progressive manner. Wealth should be taxed directly and in ways designed to curtail its transmission across generations. Sanctions would prevent offshore tax evasion. Corporations should be taxed on their global profits. Public policy should boost intergenerational mobility by equalizing access to and the quality of schooling.

On the expenditure side:

public policies should provide forms of insurance. Universal health care would buffer against shocks. More ambitious schemes include a basic minimum income. Business regulation would include changing laws regarding patents, antitrust, and contracts. Institutional reforms should revive union power, raise minimum wages, improve access to employment for underrepresented groups.

Trouble is, Scheidel concludes that meaningful levels of redistribution require such huge changes to, for example, tax rates, that the politics don’t stack up, and laments that there is ‘surprisingly little interest in how to turn such proposals into reality.’

He concludes that ‘policy making can take us only so far’ because the kinds of policies that would make a difference occur only in times of crisis – i.e. they need the four horsemen to reappear, but ‘the Four Horsemen have dismounted their steeds. And nobody in his or her right mind would want them to get back on.’

Why? Because taking them in turn:

Mass mobilization warfare: ruled out both because the increasing lethality of technology means that wars will now either be terminal for the species, or more confined – the kind of levelling of World Wars One and Two is no longer possible.

Transformative Revolution: Post-Communism, no sign of that kind of huge upheaval and destruction.

State failure and systems collapse is now more confined to the low and middle income countries, and so will not affect global inequality levels.

Severe epidemics: there’s always the risk of new disease creating a global plague, but the speed and sophistication of the medical response makes this unlikely.

His conclusion?

Much of the world has entered what could become the next long stretch – a return to persistent capital accumulation and income concentration. If history is anything to go by, peaceful reform may well prove unequal to the growing challenge ahead.

Thanks for reading,

Notes:

The text from this article comes from Oxfam Blog: https://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/the-great-leveller-a-conversation-with-walter-scheidel-on-inequality-and-apocalypse/

Princeton University Press. The Great Leveler – Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century: https://press.princeton.edu/titles/10921.html

Dr. Walter Scheidel discusses The Great Leveler on Science Salon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r93ZZKnRu68

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