I recently read an article from The Economist titled, “Can inequality only be fixed by war, revolution or plague?” The article contained an interview with Stanford professor Walter Scheidel about his new book, The Great Leveler, in which he argues that high levels of inequality can only be reduced by a great shock, such as a war or pandemic.
Drastic events that change the established order of a society often reduce privilege at the top of the society’s hierarchy. Scheidel cited multiple historical examples where “massive” or “violent” disturbances to establishments had occurred, and explained how inequality was reduced as a result. These disturbances can be grouped into four main categories: warfare, revolution, state failure, and pandemics. Here’s one example: the Black Plague played a major role in bringing down the Roman aristocracy, causing people who were initially wealthy to rely on handouts from the pope. Scheidel also states that there are limits to what society can do to combat inequality peacefully, and the future prospects of leveling the playing field are poor.
Scheidel’s argument seems to me both disputable and a bit dramatic. Societies function on systems that were created by humans, so shouldn’t humans be able to change them without the help of a war or a disease? There are peaceful methods of reducing inequality. Furthermore, all those civilizations Scheidel listed that survived catastrophic events have some level of inequality today. Societies recover from disturbances. Just because a disease got rid of the aristocracy in the medieval ages does not mean that inequality is permanently reduced.