The recent issue of London Review of Books has an interesting review by James C. Scott of the book The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the 21st Century, by Walter Scheidel. It seems that the increasing inequality exhibited in the recent neoliberal era is not a historical anomaly, but a characteristic of periods of reasonable stability in all societies over thousands of years. Those that have get more and more, at the expense of those that have not. The great levellers are wars, plagues, and their consequences such as revolutions or massive disruptions such as the Great Leap Forward.
It seems that Scheidel’s book is a bit of a counsel of despair, in that he suggests that most of the social advances made in social justice, democracy, education, trade unions, welfare state… have little effect on this underlying trend.
As a counter-example, Scott does point to the example of Scandinavia, which is particularly stable because “They provide even the poorest with the resources necessary to maintain their dignity.” This is surely the measure of a decent society, and sadly one that many free marketeers appear not to believe in.
Of course, it is arguable that if the level of all is rising, then it does not matter, as the situation of even the lowest is improving. The period of austerity since 2008 seems to have reduced any leverage this argument may have had.
I would suggest that it is not beyond the wit of man to come up with more equitable systems that allows all human beings to maintain their dignity. Good places to start include taxation of scarce or undesirable resources – land, wealth, carbon, financial transactions,… progressive taxation, removing tax havens, money reform so that new money benefits society directly, basic income with a reduced minimum wage, provision of adequate ‘social housing’… There is no shortage of good directions, it just needs the will, particularly of the better off.
Featured image shows UK wealth distribution by decile (IFS), but of course hides the extremes and unknowns at the right hand end. And many countries have much worse profiles.