March 17, 2017

A section of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Credit: Wikicommons

If you took a look at all the wealth in the world, you’d find that the eight richest people control as much of it as the poorest half of the population. That means eight people have as much money as 3.5 billion people. If you view inequality as an issue, which a lot of people do, this is a troubling statistic. And there have been a lot of proposed solutions, from guaranteed basic income, to shifting to a consumption-based tax model, to universal health care. But according to Walter Scheidel, author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, there’s only one thing that’s truly decreased inequality significantly throughout history: violent societal shocks.

Three Takeaways:

  • Walter Scheidel argues that, in the broad sweep of history, there are only four ways that wealth inequality has gone down in a meaningful way: mass warfare, transformative revolutions, the collapse of states, and severe epidemics.  
  • Scheidel brings up World War II as a prime example: inequality was high in the 1920s, it went down slightly with the Great Depression, and then went down considerably with the war. 
  • According to Scheidel, the relatively low levels of inequality from 1945 to the 1980s were due to the lingering effects of World War II and policies that had been put in place as a result of it. We’re only now moving out of that period.

More Reading:

Culture, Kara Miller, inequality, Walter Scheidel

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