What Tames Inequality? Violence and Mayhem

tags: inequality

Walter Scheidel is the Dickason professor in the humanities and a professor of classics and history at Stanford University, where he is also a fellow in human biology. This essay is adapted from his new book from Princeton University Press, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

… Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality. This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States.

Only violent shocks were capable of compressing distribution of income and wealth, narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Throughout recorded history, the most powerful leveling invariably resulted from the most powerful shocks. These shocks can be categorized into four kinds of violent ruptures: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics. I call these the Four Horsemen of Leveling. 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 the have-nots had shrunk, sometimes drastically.

For war to level disparities in income and wealth, it needed to penetrate society as a whole, to mobilize people and resources on a scale that was often feasible only in modern nation-states. This explains why the two world wars were among the greatest levelers in history. The physical destruction wrought by industrial-scale warfare, confiscatory taxation, government intervention in the economy, inflation, disruption to global flows of goods and capital, and other factors all combined to wipe out elites’ wealth and redistribute resources. They also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for policy changes with equalizing effects: increased franchises, wider unionization, and an expanded welfare state. The shocks of the world wars led to what is known as the Great Compression, the attenuation of inequalities in income and wealth across developed countries. Concentrated in the period from 1914 to 1945, it took several more decades to run its course.

The world wars spawned the second major leveling force, transformative revolution. Internal conflicts have not normally reduced inequality: Peasant revolts and urban risings were common in premodern history but usually failed, and civil war in developing countries tends to render the income distribution more unequal rather than less. Violent societal restructuring needs to be exceptionally intense if it is to reconfigure access to material resources. Like mass-mobilization warfare, this was primarily a phenomenon of the 20th century. Communists who expropriated, redistributed, and then often collectivized leveled inequality on a huge scale. The most transformative of these revolutions — Stalin’s Soviet Republic, China’s Maoist revolution, and the Khmer Rouge overthrow of the Cambodian government among them — were accompanied by extraordinary violence, in the end matching the world wars in terms of body count and human misery. Far less bloody ruptures such as the French Revolution had leveled on a correspondingly smaller scale….

There is always hope that our very recognition of deep-historical trends might be enough to help us begin to circumvent them, to throw a stick into the spokes of this societal engine and reason our way out of it.

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