Be Careful What You Wish For? Reducing Inequality in the 21st Century
15 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2017 Last revised: 13 May 2017
Date Written: April 25, 2017
Stanford historian Walter Scheidel’s The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton Univ. Press, 2017), is, in some respects, the anti-Piketty. Scheidel accepts Piketty’s view that inequality tends to grow over time, but adds a crucial caveat than runs directly opposite to Piketty’s optimistic proposals. Scheidel argues that the historical record demonstrates that inequality can only be reduced by violent means. Therefore, the Piketty proposals to reduce inequality peacefully are unrealistic, and Scheidel concludes his book by arguing that we should accept inequality as the price of peace: “All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for.”
This review will first summarize Scheidel’s thesis and the evidence for it (part 2). It will then argue that the twentieth century history of the United States shows that in fact inequality can be reduced by peaceful means, even though such reductions are not easy to achieve and usually require bipartisan consensus (part 3). Next, the review will address why the Great Recession of 2008-9 did not lead to a reduction in inequality, unlike the Great Depression (part 4). Finally, the review will ask what can be done, and propose certain steps that may be more achievable than Piketty’s proposals (part 5).
Keywords: Inequality, Violence
JEL Classification: H26
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation