Piketty on inequality

2015-01-12

in Books and literature, Economics, Politics

Previously, we discussed whether inequality of wealth or income is a problem in and of itself, or only insofar as it produces other undesirable consequences.

Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century has received a huge amount of attention, and focuses precisely on the question of inequality. He has some interesting things to say on the subject:

In this book, I focus not only on the level of inequality as such but to an even greater extent on the structure of inequality, that is, on the origins of disparities in income and wealth between social groups and on the various systems of economic, social, moral, and political justification that have been invoked to defend or condemn those disparities. Inequality is not necessarily bad in itself: the key question is to decide whether it is justified, whether there are reasons for it. (p. 19 hardcover)

I belong to a generation that turned eighteen in 1989, which was not only the bicentennial of the French Revolution but also the year when the Berlin Wall fell. I belong to a generation that came of age listening to news of the collapse of the Communist dictatorships and never felt the slightest affection or nostalgia for those regimes or for the Soviet Union. I was vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism, some of which simply ignored the historic failure of Communism and much of which turned its back on the intellectual means necessary to push beyond it. I have no interest in denouncing inequality or capitalism per se – especially since social inequalities are not in themselves a problem as long as they are justified, that is, “founded upon common utility,” as article 1 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen proclaims… I would like to see justice achieved effectively and efficiently under the rule of law, which should apply equally to all and derive from universally understood statues subject to democratic debate. (p. 31)

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer) 2014.

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. April 24, 2017 at 4:15 pm

Only catastrophe truly reduces inequality, according to a historical survey

AS A supplier of momentary relief, the Great Depression seems an unlikely candidate. But when it turns up on page 363 of Walter Scheidel’s “The Great Leveler” it feels oddly welcome. For once—and it is only once, for no other recession in American history boasts the same achievement—real wages rise and the incomes of the most affluent fall to a degree that has a “powerful impact on economic inequality”. Yes, it brought widespread suffering and dreadful misery. But it did not bring death to millions, and in that it stands out.

Having assembled a huge range of scholarly literature to produce a survey that starts in the Stone Age, he finds that inequality within countries is almost always either high or rising, thanks to the ways that political and economic power buttress each other and both pass down generations. It does not, as some have suggested, carry within it the seeds of its own demise.

Only four things, Mr Scheidel argues, cause large-scale levelling. Epidemics and pandemics can do it, as the Black Death did when it changed the relative values of land and labour in late medieval Europe. So can the complete collapse of whole states and economic systems, as at the end of the Tang dynasty in China and the disintegration of the western Roman Empire. When everyone is pauperised, the rich lose most. Total revolution, of the Russian or Chinese sort, fits the bill. So does the 20th-century sibling of such revolutions: the war of mass-mobilisation.

The 20th century was an age of increasing democratisation as well. But Mr Scheidel sees this as another consequence of its total wars. He follows Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology, in seeing democracy as a price elites pay for the co-operation of the non-aristocratic classes in mass warfare, during which it legitimises deep economic levelling. Building on work by Daron Acemoglu and colleagues, Mr Scheidel finds that democracy has no clear effect on inequality at other times. (A nice parallel to this 20th-century picture is provided by classical Athens, a democracy which also saw comparatively low levels of income inequality—and which was also built on mass-mobilisation, required by the era’s naval warfare.)

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