A BRIEF HISTORY OF EQUALITY
By Thomas Piketty
“Thomas Piketty begins his latest book by genially mentioning the entreaties he gets to write something short — previous books have been around 1,000 pages long — and ends it by expressing the hope that he has given “citizens,” rather than economists, new weapons in the battle against inequality, which is his master subject. This shouldn’t be taken for a sign that “A Brief History of Equality” is consciously simplified. It isn’t centered on a new economic finding, like that in “Capital in the Twentieth Century,” where Piketty reported that the return to capital exceeds the rate of economic growth. But neither is it written in a tone of patient explanation. It’s useful as an opportunity for readers to see Piketty bring his larger argument about the origins of inequality and his program for fighting it into high relief.
Much of the current discussion of inequality focuses on the period since 1980, when the benefits of growth began to go much more narrowly to the rich than they had before. Although Piketty hardly disputes this, he announces here that he has come to tell an optimistic story, of the world’s astounding progress toward equality. He does this by creating a much wider temporal frame, from 1780 to 2020, and by focusing on politics and measures of well-being as well as economics. Life expectancy has gone from 26 to 72 and, with the rise of compulsory state-provided education, the literacy rate from about 10 percent to 85 percent. Slavery and colonialism, once endemic, have been substantially abolished. Perhaps half of the population of the developed world is at least middle class, though before the 20th century there was no middle class to speak of. The right to vote, formerly restricted even in democracies to male property owners, is well on its way to becoming universal.
What caused this progress? Piketty has a straightforward answer: the advent of progressive taxes on income and wealth, and of the comprehensive welfare state. The taxes reduced inequality and paid for the welfare state, which has provided education, health care, old-age pensions and protection against severe deprivation. Our culture’s familiar assertions about how growth, innovation and entrepreneurship are connected with general prosperity stand completely outside Piketty’s account. Instead, he says, property owners have always used their excessive influence over government to create systems of “military and colonial domination” and environmental despoliation that made them even more wealthy than they were already. The idea that growth can solve the world’s economic woes is “totally insane.” Only a substantial weakening of property rights — a process that in the past included the abolition of slavery, but has many more steps to take — can do that.”