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W. Scheidel – The Great Leveler

Walter Scheidel – The Great Leveler, Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, 2017.

In 2015, the richest 62 persons on the planet (2010: 388) owned as much private net wealth as the poorer half of humanity, more than 3.5 billion people.

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In England on the eve of the First World War, the richest tenth of households held a staggering 92% of all private wealth, crowding out pretty much everybody else; today their share is a little more than half.

2000 years ago, the largest Roman private fortunes equaled about 1.5 million times the average annual per capita income in the empire, roughly the same ratio as for Bill Gates and the average American today. For all we can tell, even the overall degree of Roman income inequality was not very different from that in the United States.

 

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Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality.

The “Four Horsemen” of leveling have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich:

  • mass-mobilization warfare
  • transformative revolutions
  • state collapse
  • catastrophic plagues

Growing and persistent inequality became a defining feature of the Holocene. The domestication of plants and animals made it possible to accumulate and preserve productive resources. Social norms evolved to define rights to these assets, including the ability to pass them on to future generations. 

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