Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes.
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. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.
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 - mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues - have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century.
Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future. An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent--and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.
, Walter Scheidel
Princeton University Pres
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Series: The Princeton Economic History of the Western World
15 February 2017
List of Figures and Tables xi Acknowledgments xv Introduction: The Challenge of Inequality 1 I A Brief History Of Inequality 23 1 The Rise of Inequality 25 2 Empires of Inequality 62 3 Up and Down 86 II War 113 4 Total War 115 5 The Great Compression 130 6 Preindustrial Warfare and Civil War 174 III Revolution 211 7 Communism 213 8 Before Lenin 232 IV Collapse 255 9 State Failure and Systems Collapse 257 V Plague 289 10 The Black Death 291 11 Pandemics, Famine, and War 314 VI Alternatives 343 12 Reform, Recession, and Representation 345 1 Economic Development and Education 367 14 What If ? From History to Counterfactuals 389 VII Inequality Redux And The Future Of Leveling 403 15 In Our Time 405 16 What Does the Future Hold? 424 Appendix: The Limits of Inequality 445 Bibliography 457 Index 495
Walter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of sixteen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He lives in Palo Alto, California.
Reviews for The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
Mr. Scheidel's depressing view is bound to upset [those] who quite naturally might prefer to live in a world in which events might move political and social systems to figure out a more equitable way to distribute the fruits of growth without the plague, the guillotine or state collapse. --Eduardo Porter, New York Times A thoroughly unsunny ... but fascinating look at the engines of our discontent. --Kirkus
- Commended for The HCSS Bookshelf (chosen by Stephan De Spiegeleire).
- Long-listed for 2017 Cundill History Prize, McGill University 2017
- Short-listed for The Wall Street Journal 's What Business Leaders Read in 2017 2017
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