Friday, January 26, 2018

Massive Violence, Widespread Death, and the History of Inexorable Inequality

Walter Scheidel has an impressive list of titles.  At Stanford University he is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology.  With his book, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, he has produced a scholarly work consistent with expectations for someone so highly regarded.  Acknowledging inspiration from the work of the economists Branco Milanovic and Tomas Piketty and their collaborators, he wished to apply the perspective of an historian to the lessons to be learned from studying economic inequality from humanity’s earliest times up to the present.  The conclusions Scheidel draws from his study are not very encouraging, and he suggests that the future is likely to be rather bleak as well.

Scheidel tells us the evidence suggests that as soon as it was possible to acquire more sustenance than was necessary for daily needs, the unequal accumulation of that surplus would begin.  Further, the larger the surplus, the greater the degree of inequality.  That should surprise no one.  The disturbing part is his conclusion that only massive levels of violence and widespread death were capable of leveling that inequality significantly.  Peace and stability only served to increase inequality.

Scheidel finds four types of events throughout history that have proved capable of leveling inequality, at least for a time.  These would be rare occurrences because of the scale required.  They are not events one would wish to endure in order to attain greater equality.

“For thousands of years, civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization.  Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality.  This was as true of Pharaonic Egypt as it was of Victorian England, as true of the Roman Empire as of the United States….Four different kinds of violent ruptures have flattened inequality: mass mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state failure, and lethal pandemics….Sometimes acting individually and sometimes in concert with one another, they produced outcomes that to contemporaries often seemed nothing short of apocalyptic.  Hundreds of millions perished in their wake.  And by the time the dust had settled, the gap between the haves and the have-nots had shrunk, sometimes dramatically.”

It has been only in recent years that states have been accumulating economic statistics that allow a straightforward evaluation of inequality, but scholars have been trying to deduce relevant information from archeological and other sources.  These efforts have provided Scheidel with enough information to support his conclusions.

He begins with early humans as hunter-gatherers.  This is not a way of life that is generally consistent with the accumulation of surpluses, but it is one in which hierarchies within group members are expected.  There is evidence from burial sites that suggests particular individuals were provided the trappings of either greater wealth or greater respect than others.

There was a long period in which hunter-gathering coexisted with the knowledge of how to cultivate crops and manage herds of animals, but it took thousands of years before the large-scale domestication of plants and animals became common.  One usually refers to the period when agriculture became the dominant mode of providing food as an advance in civilization.  Rather, it was an advance in the production of economic inequality.  Agriculture, along with the early formation of states, was the mechanism by which elites provided themselves with wealth and cheap labor.  It is no coincidence that grains were the cultivated crop of choice.  Grains delivered a crop that was clearly visible, would produce its yield at a known time, and it could be easily transported and stored.  Therefore, grain crops provided the elites with something they could easily extract from the people and land they controlled, and which they could use in trade for other goods.  It was wealth.

Agriculture was much more labor intensive than hunting and gathering, and thus required coercion on the part of the elites to acquire the workers they needed.  Slavery was common; the existing records indicate that much of the states’ activities involved trying to keep workers from escaping or raiding other states to capture more workers.  It would take a combination of climate change and population pressure to make agriculture a tolerable alternative to hunting and gathering.

These early states accumulated people and animals in unprecedented numbers.  This crowding provided the opportunity for diseases to develop and propagate.  It also allowed for the interchange of diseases between humans and animals, and invited pests such as rats and mice to coexist with humans.  It was a rather nasty period in our history.

It would be a long time before the concept of a state as an entity devoted to serving its citizens would take hold.  For most of history states were controlled by a small group of elites who could use the power of the state to enrich themselves.  That has not changed in modern times; the methods have merely become more subtle.  Power begets wealth and wealth begets power.  This is the formula that has associated periods of peace and stability with ever-increasing inequality.

“Rents from access to political power are not exclusive to low levels of development.  A recent study of dozens of super-rich entrepreneurs shows how they benefited from political connections, exploited loopholes in regulation, and took advantage of market imperfections.  In this respect, the difference between advanced democratic market economies and other types of states is a matter of degree.”

Scheidel discusses numerous examples of how the four types of “violent ruptures” contributed to the leveling of economic inequality.  Consider first the case of state failure.

“State failure was a powerful means of leveling because of the multiple ways it interfered with the enrichment of the ruling class….in premodern societies, elite wealth was primarily derived from two sources—the accumulation of resources through investment in productive assets or activities such as land, trade, and finance and predatory accumulation via state service, graft, and plunder.  Both income streams critically depended on the stability of the state: the former because state power provided a measure of protection for economic activity and the latter even more so for the simple reason that state institutions served as a vehicle for generating and allocating gains.”

In these cases, everyone might be diminished by state collapse, but the elite had much more to lose—and lose they did.  The best example is the fall of the Roman Empire.  State collapse does not serve as a viable path to a more equal society.

Lethal pandemics have also proved capable diminishing inequality, but in a not very satisfactory manner.  Any mechanism that kills a large fraction of available workers will produce an increase in the wages of those remaining.

“In premodern, agrarian societies, plagues leveled by changing the ratio of land to labor, lowering the value of the former (as documented by land prices and rents and the price of agricultural products) and raising that of the latter (in the form of higher real wages and lower tenancy rents).  This served to make landowners and employers less rich, and workers better off, than before, lowering inequality in both income and wealth.”

Consider the effects of the Black Plague which was caused by bacteria residing in fleas whose favorite hosts were rodents.  Once the population of rodent carriers was reduced, the fleas would look for human hosts.  The plague seems to have originated in the Gobi Desert around 1320 and gradually spread over much of the world.  It would come and do its damage then subside only to return again in cycles that persisted over several generations.  The extent of population loss was remarkable.

“By 1350 the plague had run its course in the Mediterranean, and by the following year it had abated all over Europe—if only for the time being.  Little would be gained by recounting the casualty numbers proffered by medieval witnesses who struggled to measure the immeasurable and often fell back on rounded or stereotypical figures.  Even so, the 23,840,000 plague deaths calculated for Pope Clement VI in 1351 need not be wide of the mark.  Modern estimates of overall losses range from 25 percent to 45 percent.  According to the latest reconstruction by Paolo Malanima, Europe’s population fell from 94 million in 1300 to 68 million in 1400, a drop of more than a quarter.  Attrition was most severe in England and Wales which may have lost almost half of their preplague population of close to 6 million and which did not reach preplague levels until the early eighteenth century, and in Italy where at least a third of the people perished.”

Scheidel’s survey of history shows that while war was frequent, most conflicts were basically elites battling other elites, doing little to affect the fundamental inequality that existed.

“Most wars did not have any systematic effect on the distribution of resources: although archaic forms of conflict that thrived on conquest and plunder were likely to enrich victorious elites and impoverish those on the losing side, less clear-cut endings failed to have predictable consequences.”

It would take the advent of modern, total war in the twentieth century to produce what Scheidel refers to as “mass mobilization warfare.”

“For war to level disparities in income and wealth, it needed to penetrate society as a whole, to mobilize people and resources on a scale that was often only feasible in modern nation-states.  This explains why the two world wars were among the greatest levelers in history.  The physical destruction wrought by industrial-scale warfare, confiscatory taxation, government intervention in the economy, inflation, disruption to global flows of goods and capital, and other factors all combined to wipe-out elites’ wealth and redistribute resources.”

Instances of “transformative revolutions” as sources of inequality leveling are scarce.  Scheidel finds only two examples: the communist revolutions in Russia and China.  Both succeeded because they utilized violence and its threat to alter society totally.  The net result was a leveling of inequality, but by destroying wealth rather than redistributing it.  Nearly everyone affected by these revolutions suffered harm, at least initially.

“The overwhelming majority of violent popular uprisings in history sought redress for specific grievances and were, equally overwhelmingly, unsuccessful.  More ambitious movements that succeeded both in seizing power and flattening the income and wealth distribution appeared only in the relatively recent past.  Much as in the case of war, intensity of effort was a critical variable….It was the sheer amount of violence that mattered most: just as the two world wars were the bloodiest wars in human history, so the most equalizing revolutions were among the bloodiest internal upheavals on record.  My comparative survey of revolts and revolutions confirms the central importance of large-scale violence as a means of leveling.”

Scheidel’s study concludes with the observation that while we are just a few generations removed from the most violent—and most successful—inequality leveling events in history, we appear to be well on our way into yet another extended period of stability and growing inequality.  If history is to be a guide, societies will not be able to deal with this trend using peaceful means, implying that large-scale violence may be the only recourse.  He finishes with this comment.

“If history is anything to go by, peaceful policy reform will prove unequal to the growing challenges ahead.  But what of the alternatives?  All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions, it was only ever brought forth in sorrow.  Be careful what you wish for.”

Is such a gloomy sentiment justified?  Consider Scheidel’s list of the factors that contributed to the leveling of inequality during and after World War II—the period referred to as The Great Compression.

“The physical destruction wrought by industrial-scale warfare, confiscatory taxation, government intervention in the economy, inflation, disruption to global flows of goods and capital, and other factors all combined to wipe-out elites’ wealth and redistribute resources.”

Except for industrial-scale warfare, all the other factors are policy changes made under extreme duress, of course, but undertaken by representative governments in search of solutions to problems.  Before we submit to inevitable gloom and doom we should go back and examine what occurred in the 30 years between the start of the first world war and the end on the second, and understand the subsequent policy decisions that produced The Great Compression.

We must start with the assumption that the inequality that seems inevitable in unconstrained human interactions is really just a failure of social policy.  If compression can happen once, it should be possible to make it happen again.

The interested reader might find the following article informative:

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