Summary and Critique of “The Great Leveler”
Walter Scheidel is a professor of Human Biology at Stanford University and his book The Great Leveler adds to the growing body of work on economic inequality. It is a book meant for a general audience and distills decades of research and scholarship conducted by him and others. He mobilizes a wide range of data from statistical and other governmental data collected in the past couple centuries to inferred data going back thousands of years. In so doing, he leverages the scholarship of archaeologists, historians, economists, linguists, and others.
His primary thesis is that economic inequality has been rising since the emergence of agricultural societies and that equalizing wealth redistribution only happens when one or more of the following occurs, which he calls the “Four Horsemen” of leveling:
- Mass mobilization warfare
- State collapse
- Mass disease
In all these cases, the leveling is preceded by, if not the direct result of, violence and death on a vast scale. It’s a discouraging conclusion for those who wish to reduce inequality.
Scheidel begins by describing how “inequality took off only after the last Ice Age came to an end,” which “created and environment that was more favorable to economic and social development”. As humans transitioned to new forms of organization, the egalitarianism of forager societies gave way to lasting social hierarchies and income and wealth inequality. To marshal evidence, he uses data from ancient tombs and grave sites to show the wealth with which some, including children of very important people, were buried, suggesting that those individuals were far richer than their contemporaries. He also looks at the historical record of dowries and other interesting ways to track wealth in long-gone eras.
He surveys classical civilizations in China, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome and the Americas to show how the elites were always able to command more and more of a society’s economic resources — the inexorable cornering of surplus value by the “1 percent”. He describes the rise of great European city states, like Florence and examines the great empires of the17th, 18th and 19th centuries, where repeatedly the wealth was concentrated in the hands of the elite (for example, the Spanish, Ottoman, Mughal, French, and other empires). This concentration increased generation over generation, culminating in the Robber Baron and Belle Epoque era in America and Europe, when despite the enormous expansion of wealth, it remained as highly concentrated as under the pharaohs or emperors.
Scheidel differentiates between mass mobilization warfare, of which there were only a few examples in antiquity and, of course, in the 20th century. This kind of warfare engaged the sinews of an entire society, resulting in a grand bargain where the rich contributed their wealth while the poor sacrificed their lives to support the state. The losing side’s elites often suffered large losses of capital. Even the winning side typically saw income and wealth equalization, often because of the increased power of labor.
Revolution had leveling effects, but earlier ones like the French Revolution, were muted. The only revolutions to substantially and sustainably reduce inequality were the communist ones in the 20th century, especially in Russia and China. Of course, both were precipitated by war and astounding levels of indiscriminate violence and terror, with perhaps 100 million deaths.
State collapse of the sort seen in Somalia in recent times or the falls of the Roman, Mayan and other ancient empires often resulted in lasting compression of inequality, sometimes for centuries.
Finally, plague or major pandemics wherein 25–40% of the population perished had dramatic leveling effects. He recounts several such episodes, from the late Roman Empire to the late Medieval.
The leveling effects of war and plague were largely driven by the increased bargaining power of the laboring classes — as there were fewer of them, their market value increased. Revolutions that actually caused equalization were ideologically motivated and utilized state terror to expropriate and redistribute wealth. State collapse largely equalized wealth because the structures for surplus value extraction were destroyed with the state, while past accumulated wealth was plundered.
Thus, the common element among the Four Horsemen is the violence that allowed transformative change. This seems his principal insight.
Today, Scheidel finds that after the leveling effects of the 20th century, after just a few short decades, inequality is on the rise worldwide, driven by many forces, including technology and globalization. A superclass of global oligarchs and rentiers are becoming wealthier while controlling the state structures, limiting any meaningful reform.
Finally, Scheidel considers less destructive means of achieving greater equality, including democracy, education, land reform and debt relief. Even when accompanied with the threat or even likelihood of violence, these proved short lived or ineffectual.
In the end, he seems to conclude that most of the Four Horsemen are unlikely to reemerge. And, given the sheer destruction and chaos they caused, who would want them, even if they ushered in greater equality? Often that equality simply meant that the elites were brought down to the level of the poor, who in turn were as likely to be driven lower still. The conclusion appears to be that inequality is on the rise and will continue to do so.
The book distills a lifetime of academic research and uses ingenious methodologies to seek out an historic data to support his thesis. The data, trends and historic record that Scheidel plumbs are fascinating, and alone is worth reading the book. The survey of ancient civilizations through the lens of wealth and income was fresh and educational.
Commentary and Critique
Yet some problems exist with Scheidel’s thesis. He describes the Four Horsemen, yet one of them, revolution, is only a leveler in the 20th century. Examples of such revolution, the Russian, Khmer and Chinese, were accompanied by wars that undermined or destroyed the economies and societies first. Perhaps there are only Three Horsemen, with revolution a dependent variable.
Scheidel’s attempt to broaden the scope of his data set to include prehistoric periods, requires him to use more and more speculative tools, such as analyzing dowry records or ancient burial sites. These are fascinating, but are they enough to support the thesis? Or are there other equally compelling interpretations of these largely anecdotal data sets?
Finally, he offers no peaceful alternative to improving equality outcomes, returning to the claim that only great violence in the form of the Four Horsemen could truly equalize societies. And yet, intuitively, the world and people’s lot in it seems better than in the recent or distant past, even as global population has exploded.
Perhaps the paradox is because in Scheidel’s analysis, he is focused on a single objective function: minimizing inequality. If that is the sole objective, then one feasible way is to destroy all wealth. And, it seems Scheidel’s research and analysis has found the evidence to support those ways, which of course involves the violence he documents. Instead, if the objective function we want to solve for is to maximize total wealth, subject to some constraint on relative inequality, then we might see different solutions emerge from the data.
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