[ExI] Correlation between violence and inequality

BillK pharos at gmail.com
Fri Jan 27 12:59:52 UTC 2017

Stanford historian uncovers a grim correlation between violence and
inequality over the millennia
January 24, 2017  By Elena Dancu


What price do we pay for civilization? For Walter Scheidel, a
professor of history and classics at Stanford, civilization has come
at the cost of glaring economic inequality since the Stone Age. The
sole exception, in his account, is widespread violence – wars,
pandemics, civil unrest; only violent shocks like these have
substantially reduced inequality over the millennia.

“It is almost universally true that violence has been necessary to
ensure the redistribution of wealth at any point in time,” said
Scheidel, summarizing the thesis of The Great Leveler: Violence and
the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First
Century, his newly published book.

Scheidel acknowledges his pessimism about resolving inequality.
“Reversing the trend toward greater concentrations of income, in the
United States and across the world, might be, in fact, nearly
impossible,” he said.

Among the wide variety of catastrophes that level societies, Scheidel
identifies what he calls “four horsemen”: mass mobilization or state
warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and plague.

A textbook example of mass mobilization is World War II, a conflict
that embroiled many developed countries and, key for Scheidel,
“uniformly hugely reduced inequality.” As with Europe and Japan, he
said, “in the U.S. there were massive tax increases, state
intervention in the economy to support the war effort and increase
output, which triggered a redistribution of resources, benefiting
workers and harming the interests of the top 1 percent.”

Another “horseman” was the outbreak of the bubonic plague in
14th-century Eurasia. While war wreaks havoc on everything, a pandemic
of this magnitude “kills a third of the population, but does not
damage the physical infrastructure,” Scheidel said. “As a result,
labor becomes scarce, wages grow and the gap between the rich and the
poor narrows.”

State collapse has also been crucial in the history of inequality.
“The rich are beneficiaries of the state,” Scheidel said, adding that
“if states fall apart, everybody is worse off; but the rich have more
to lose. Their wealth is wiped out by the destruction of the state,
such as in the fall of the Mayan civilization or Chinese dynasties.”

As for whether reducing inequality will ever be possible in peacetime,
Scheidel simply said, “History does not determine the future. Things
can change, but change is slow.”

“Business as usual may not be enough,” he said. “We have to think
harder about how to bring change in today’s world.”


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