According to Walter Sheidel’s new book, “The Great Leveler”, economic inequality can be reduced by 4 things: war, revolution, state collapse, and plague. The Stanford professor affectionately named them the 4 horsemen of equality. This theory is as extreme as it is grim. Though it may seem outlandish, Sheidel’s dreary hypothesis is based on historical trends.
Sheidel falls in line with Piketty’s historical analysis; the period of rising equality following the world wars was the anomaly of human history. Piketty notes that the period of increasing equality was due to economic turmoil and consequent redistribution caused by the world wars. Scheidel agrees with this too, however, he goes a step further in his analysis to draw quite a damning conclusion. He argues that the only way inequality has been reduced throughout history is through violent means. Whether it be the Bolshevik Revolution or the British labor unions’ fight for a welfare state, the only way true redistribution has been achieved is through violent upset. In an excerpt from his book, Sheidel asserts, “Across recorded history, the periodic compressions of inequality brought about by mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and pandemics have invariably dwarfed any known instances of equalization by entirely peaceful means”.
Now. That’s not a great thing to see in a crystal ball. But history serves as a warning, not a death sentence.
As I’ve explained in a previous post, Piketty argues that capitalism naturally leans towards unsustainable inequality. Essentially, under a capitalist system, inequality is inevitable and will increase. Sheidel expands on this theory by arguing that if inequality is a product of a capitalistic system, breaking that system increases equality. Of course, in human history, ‘breaking’ the capitalistic system has been bloody business. The problem posed to us then, is how to disassemble the system peacefully.
Softball solutions like raising the minimum wage receive a disheartening amount of criticism considering that they would have minimal impact on increasing equality. Policy that would truly redistribute wealth and income will be far more intrusive and disruptive of the capitalist order. After all, they must match the degree of change brought forth by war. Perhaps if a policy is decried as a ‘war on capitalism’, it has promise as a solution to inequality. Piketty proposed radical reforms that would require idealistic international cooperation as solutions to inequality. As naively optimistic as they may seem, we need to consider his train of thought or we’ll be victims of repeated history. I’d rather reach for Utopia than await the apocalypse.
To read an interview with Walter Sheidel, click here