In his new book, Walter Scheidel offers a simple, though jarring, story of how past societies struggled with inequality. The Great Leveler is a cautionary tale to policy makers who believe in economic redistribution as a means to level the playing field. A professor of ancient history at Stanford University, Scheidel’s thesis unfolds in the following way: economic inequality is always terrible and disruptive. We should be worried that vastly disproportionate increases in wealth in twenty-first-century America approach something analogous to the high Roman empire or the unchecked roaring twenties in the United States. According to Scheidel, inequality is worse than the Gini coefficient might suggest, given the difficulty in measuring the demographic, sociological, and technological factors affecting the distribution of wealth.1

Scheidel argues that history offers few peaceful antidotes to the accumulation of property, money, and leverage in the hands of the few. “For thousands of years,” Scheidel observes, “civilization did not lend itself to peaceful equalization. Across a wide range of societies and different levels of development, stability favored economic inequality.”2 Civilization is the culprit; its absence, the cure. Scheidel wrote the book as a warning to progressives: “If we seek to rebalance the current distribution of income and wealth in favor of greater equality, we cannot simply close our eyes to what it took to accomplish this goal in the past.”3

Scheidel notes that large estates and monopolies, and the wealthy classes that control them, collapsed only during relatively rare times of chaos. The “massive and violent disruptions of the established order” encompass the four horsemen of the redistributive apocalypse, which Scheidel collectively describes as the “the Great Leveler.”4

The first horseman embodies existential conflicts, and specifically the conflagrations of the twentieth century’s two world wars, which collectively killed more than eighty million civilians and soldiers and reduced much of Europe and Asia to rubble. Workers, given an obvious manpower shortage, briefly gained leverage over capital. Elite powers of accumulation were temporarily interrupted. War did through carnage what peace never achieved under the square, new, and fair deals of Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. The poor and working classes glimpsed, at least for a moment, a great leveling of wealth, albeit by bringing the rich down rather than lifting the poor up. The Europe of 1945 was a far more egalitarian place than in 1935; 1920 had also seen more equality than 1913. In Scheidel’s view, there is a direct current in human affairs leading from what is bad to what is good. Even Hitler’s Wehrmacht, which conquered the continent from the English Channel to the Volga, and the forces needed to defeat it played a role in dismantling entrenched wealth.

By the same reductive reasoning, are we to imagine that the mass confiscation of Jewish wealth during 1939–1945 fell under the rubric of wealth redistribution?

Ian Morris, Scheidel’s colleague at Stanford, in his recent book War: What Is It Good For? has also argued for the utility of war.5 The bigger the war, the better things become in the long run. War gives the state the power to make their citizens’ lives safer and richer. This is a thesis as counterintuitive as anything found in quantum mechanics. George Orwell’s 1984 argues against just such themes. In the aftermath of a catastrophic British civil war following World War II, three governments have divided up the world. The threat of perpetual conflict brings about a relative form of enforced equality. Orwell saw nothing encouraging in either the consolidation of states through conflict or the achievement of equality brought about through the disasters of past wars.

Scheidel’s second horseman may be seen galloping after the first: violent revolution on the scale of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In the more lawful Western democracies, strikes, protests, or periodic riots never proved prolonged or forceful enough to erode the plutocracy and redistribute its money. This proved true of the Wobblies, Red Brigades, the Los Angeles riots, and Occupy Wall Street. In narrow terms of revolutionary equalization, Scheidel notes, the more death, the better. But he is reluctant emphatically to acknowledge that revolutionary equalization succeeds only by impoverishing the vast majority of the population. Twentieth-century Russia and China are cases in point. Take also his summary note on Cuba:

Development in Cuba has followed the same pattern: after the market income Gini dropped from 0.55 or 0.57 in 1959, the year of the communist revolution, to 0.22 in 1986, it appears to have risen to 0.41 in 1999 and 0.42 in 2004, although one estimate put it already as high as 0.55 by 1995. In the majority of these cases, nominally communist regimes remain in power, but economic liberalization has driven up inequality.6

Scheidel slides over the reality that committed communists, such as the Castro brothers and the successors to Mao, were no fans of liberalization. They turned to it in desperation, and only after failed releveling attempts. Might this suggest that the greater the presence of free markets, the greater the general well-being of the population? “Whether communism’s sacrifice,” Scheidel writes, “of a hundred million lives bought anything of value is well beyond the scope of this study to contemplate.” This seems odd given his efforts to quantify egalitarianism, assess the cost of achieving it, and emphasize the steep price exacted by the levelers of war, revolution, plague, and collapse. These are the very themes of his book.7

The third horseman is the implosion and utter ruin of the state. Collapse on this scale brings an end to law and its protocols. For a rare moment, class becomes fluid. The rather mysterious and abrupt end of the hierarchical Mycenaean world in the thirteenth century BCE led to depopulation. The impoverished tribes and herdsmen of Dark Age Greece, if they were equal in their impoverishment were, at least, equal in their misery. A few traces of this diminished world survive in Homer’s Odyssey and Hesiod’s Works and Days. In the fifth century CE, the collapse of the Roman Empire, for all its disastrous consequences, did away with a great deal of accumulated wealth. The ensuing void ruined the entrenched commercial and aristocratic classes in the western empire. The chaos of this second Dark Age left everyone poorer, and in Scheidel’s ironic sense, more equal. And the more hierarchical a former society, whether Mycenaean or Roman, the greater the impoverishment of the Dark Ages that follow.

Scheidel’s fourth horseman of equality rides on the back of disease. Plagues and pandemics lay waste both to governments and the social and economic networks upon which privileged elites rely. Rules, regulations, and insider ways of making and holding onto wealth perish with them. For Scheidel, this brutal shake-up allows the survivors of epidemics to recalibrate economic roles until things settle down. In time, the elites naturally regroup and inequality returns. In Scheidel’s schema, the rich are an insidious lot, like toadstools that sprout on the lawn after rain. After every upheaval, the economic elite spontaneously reappears.

The great plagues at Athens and Constantinople were natural levelers. Justinian I’s ambitious building program and his systematic efforts to refashion Byzantine law were short-circuited by a disastrous outbreak of the bubonic plague in the sixth century. Forty percent of Constantinople’s population and perhaps a quarter of the people in the Eastern empire perished. The poor gained from the spoils of empire and lost from the ensuing pandemics. The perennial crisis of the Byzantine Empire was not so much inequality as depopulation—one of the supposed cures of the former.

Classical catastrophes were inferior only to the fourteenth-century Black Death that killed at least a quarter of Europe’s population. Food became scarce, labor difficult to obtain, and many political institutions broke down. The plague hit the elites hard. One wonders how Scheidel would sort out these cumulative forces of war and plague, given that they qualify his notion of equality by defining it as omnipresent and shared poverty.8

Scheidel has given us the scholarly version of what Hollywood has expected its audiences intuitively to grasp. After aliens invade, nuclear war erupts, or a deadly virus escapes the lab, rules no longer apply amid the detritus. This benefits those with nothing to lose. Hollywood fleshes out themes that Scheidel implies, but does not elaborate upon: mass violence and death reduce life to the survival of the fittest. Muscular strength, practical know-how, familiarity with weapons, and animal cunning acquire a premium they would not otherwise possess.

Lest the reader become uneasy with these macabre remedies for inequality, Scheidel confesses at the outset that he finds both inequality and its cures unpalatable. Would that history could offer hope that, in times of stability, progressive leaders might enact more schemes for redistribution. One of Scheidel’s most sobering observations is that democracies have not been very successful in addressing inequality.9

Scheidel’s concluding peroration about the excess accumulation of wealth can be read as a plea for enlightened redistribution. His calls for new and innovative methods, as he admits, have no real precedents in the past. Otherwise the four grim horsemen will do it for us: “If history is anything to go by, peaceful policy reform may well prove unequal to the growing challenges ahead.”10

Scheidel’s argument depends on a number of propositions that he does not fully explore. Economic inequality is always relative, not absolute. Scheidel assumes that throughout history disproportionate wealth leads to permanent class envy and inevitable strife. In contemporary terms, the American poor resent not just their poverty, but feel insult added to their injury in seeing others who have far more. Really? The story of the twenty-first century may be that high-tech breakthroughs, the inclusion of three billion workers from the former Third World into the global capitalist labor force, and the internet have redefined poverty and wealth.

Does history provide no non-violent curatives for economic inequality? From 500 to 300 BCE, the Greek city-state supported a substantial class of small landholders. The Roman Republic had a similar agrarian patchwork. There are many such examples of agrarian equalitarianism in the ancient world. The emergence of some 1,500 Greek city-states from the depopulated Dark Age was marked by the rise of hoi mesoi, whose egalitarianism was the catalyst for constitutionally enshrined property rights. The Greek city-state found a number of ways in which to keep wealth roughly even. These included imposing burdensome religious rites on the rich, funding generous entitlements, and limiting the size of farms. These remedies were not necessarily dependent on wars, plagues, revolution, or the collapse of the state.

The ancients had a rough idea that wealthy people could be dangerous. “Anyone for whom seven acres are not enough,” Pliny the Elder remarked, “is a dangerous citizen.”11 Their riches resulted in inordinate political power and control. As an antidote, the ancient Greek hoi mesoi are present throughout classical literature as champions of roughly equal property holding, a point of view commonly attributed to early lawgivers and statesmen like Phaleas, Philolaus, and Solon. There is not really any archeological, epigraphic, or literary evidence that many farms in Attica, even at the height of the Athenian imperial boom, were larger than one hundred acres. This contradicts somewhat Scheidel’s ominous generalization that “[f]or most of the agrarian period the state enriched the few at the expense of the many.”12

Scheidel seems to miss the pan-Hellenic nature of landed egalitarianism evident in Aristotle and clear from the archaeological evidence throughout the Aegean and Black Seas. Scheidel is right to note of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE that, “direct democracy and a culture of military mass mobilization… helped contain economic inequality.”13 He then overstates the case that this is the “only reasonably well documented” exception, given that the Greek evidence suggests non-Athenian broad-based timocracies were quite successful until the advent of the Hellenistic age. Horse-raising and meat production, which required an inordinate amount of land, were reflections of inequality—which perhaps helps to explain why cavalry was never a dominant arm of most Greek armies or Roman Republican legions. It also may well have been true that some non-Athenian and non-democratic Greek city-states had even lower property qualifications than classical Athens.14

Given that somewhere between eighty to ninety percent of the preindustrial population was probably connected to agriculture, it is understandable that Scheidel would remark that there “can be no doubt that most of the inequality we observe in the following millennia was made possible by farming.”15 The transition from depopulated nomadism and tribalism to prosperous civilization was, of course, also “made possible by farming.”

Annual income or net worth itself, as Scheidel reminds us, is not a holistic method of measuring inequality. Forty-five percent of eligible American taxpayers pay no federal income tax; the top one percent of tax returns account for almost forty percent of all income tax federal revenue. In California, one percent of its population of forty million pays forty-five percent of all state income tax revenue.16 Entitlement spending, pensions, and social services are at all-time highs as percentages of federal budget outlays. Prices for everything from televisions to tennis shoes have declined in real dollars over the last thirty years. Fuels are relatively cheap, as fracking and horizontal drilling force down energy costs. Millions of Americans who occasionally turn up in Scheidel’s tables and graphs as suffering from income inequality nonetheless have access to an abundance of material goods once considered the sole domain of the wealthy.17

What drives inequality during civilization’s calm? Scheidel describes rather than analyses the relative roles of luck, health, inheritance, education, or talent in wealth creation. Ancient lawgivers assumed that periodic adjustments in land tenure were necessary given that quite different innate abilities, pure chance, and the varied interests of the citizenry would always eventually kick in to distort their best laid plans to force people to remain about the same. But, the luck of the draw, or natural differences in talent, in many ways confounded the most ingenious remedies of the Gracchi brothers in the second century BCE, and even the New Dealers of the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.

Inequality seems often to rest on paradoxes. Near zero interest rates favor investments that make a few rich and more poor. Higher taxes often discourage investors and entrepreneurs while encouraging talented money-makers to hoard and hide assets rather than to risk them. At some point, expanding entitlements can encourage consumption and dependence rather than industry and thrift. One reason why the United States claims that it is exceptional in producing vast goods and services is its cultural attitude to wealth creation and inequality, emphasizing emulation as much as envy. In popular American lore, the owner of a Chevrolet is the owner of a Cadillac in prospect.18

The transition from local to global markets, Scheidel notes, is often disruptive. The ability of a Corinthian farmer to profit from selling raisins in 440 BCE was vastly increased by 200 BCE, when the Hellenistic world connected parts of Greece to the wealth of north Africa, the Middle East, and the greater Balkans. What in Roman times explains the depopulation of the Greek countryside was not just war but the increasingly corporate character of agriculture, which was dominated by large landholdings, slave labor, and the export of luxury products. The result was an enormous inequality in wealth, as Scheidel demonstrates in an especially striking table.19

Herodes Atticus lived in the second century CE and prospered as both an Athenian aristocrat and Roman senator. Herodes may have owned a great deal of the ancient deme of Marathon—the former haunt of hundreds of hoplite small farmers. What made his wealth possible was the Pax Romana that redefined classical economies as Mediterranean in scope. Such new men got fabulously rich by trading from Sicily to the Alps, Gibraltar to the Persian Gulf, and from the Rhine to the Atlas Mountains. And why not? They now had seventy million Roman consumers in connected markets to exploit. Five centuries earlier, the Greeks had only four million. When postclassical observers of the Roman age, such as Pausanias, Polybius, and Strabo, remarked that large parts of Greece, especially Arcadia, Boeotia, and Thessaly, had become depopulated, with swaths of land under single ownership, they offered the common exegesis that peace and quiet, not war and disease, were at fault. Scheidel would appreciate the famous quote of Polybius, “In our times some cities have become deserted and agricultural production has declined, although neither wars nor epidemics were taking place continuously.”20

Throughout his book, Scheidel takes pains to emphasize his tragic view of inequality, and repeatedly notes that he does not like the very solutions that he has found: “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.”21

For all Scheidel’s good sense and prodigious research, he still does not manage to reconcile his assumption that economic equality is a very good thing with his demonstration that it occurs only under the most barbaric of conditions. Why, then, should it remain a desirable goal? If the human desire for equality is embedded within chaos, perhaps there is something wrong with mere envy as a social force? Equality through catastrophe makes the wealthy poor, but it does not necessarily make the poor wealthy.

Scheidel’s book contains 456 pages, and 54 complex tables, graphs, charts, and figures. He combines an impressive array of examples from the ancient Middle East to contemporary China, and draws on the theoretical work of Anthony B. Atkinson, Branko Milanović, and Thomas Piketty concerning the pernicious nature of inequality. Yet for all that industry, the prose and arguments of The Great Leveler are not easy to follow, and are a world away from the lively writing and engaging narratives of popular classical historians such as M.I. Finley, Adrian Goldsworthy, and Peter Green.

  1. On the use of the Gini coefficient, see Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 11–4. 
  2. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 6. 
  3. Ibid., 22. 
  4. Ibid., 443. 
  5. Ian Morris, War: What is it Good For?: The Role of Conflict in Civilization, from Primates to Robots (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014); cf. the review of Victor Davis Hanson, “The Aztec Road,” Times Literary Supplement, September 24, 2014. 
  6. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 254. 
  7. Ibid., 254. 
  8. For the strategic effect of the plague on Byzantine resources and strategies, see Edward Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 86–94; on the losses themselves, William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (New York: Viking, 2007), 3–4. 
  9. In an anecdotal and casual sense, we can see that observation born out near the Stanford University campus, where the greatest accumulation of wealth in the history of civilization has occurred in the last decade in the surrounding Silicon Valley—at a time when the most progressive democratically elected administration in recent history was not able to remedy declining real incomes of the middle classes or increasing numbers of the poor reliant on government entitlements. 
  10. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 444. 
  11. Pliny, Natural History, 18.4. 
  12. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 5. On early Greek philosophical support for equal property regimes and the egalitarian ethos in founding Greek colonies, see Victor Davis Hanson, The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 190–4. For some ancient references to the often obscure Phaleas, Philolaus, and Solon, see Aristotle, Politics, 2.1266a40-1266b6; 2.127a23-30; 2.1266b14-20; 5.1307a29-31; 6.1319a6-10; cf. Solon, Fragments, 5, 24; and Plutarch, Solon, 14–6.

    On the likelihood of small properties at Athens, see two often overlooked classic essays: G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, “The Estate of Phaenippos (Ps. Demosthenes XLII),” in Ancient Society and Institutions: Studies Presented to Victor Ehrenberg on His 75th Birthday, ed. Ernst Badian (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), 100–14; M. H. Jameson, “Agricultural Labor in Ancient Greece,” in Agriculture in Ancient Greece: Proceedings of the Seventh International Symposium at the Swedish Institute of Athens, 16-17 May 1990, ed. Berit Wells (Stockholm: P. Åströms, 1992), 135–46. 
  13. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 84. 
  14. Ibid., 84. Compare, for example, the property qualification in the cities of the oligarchic Boeotian Confederation (Victor Davis Hanson, Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 207–8).

    My own small farm is a result of my great-great-grandmother’s efforts to come west from Missouri on promises of the nineteenth-century federal Homestead Act. Land-grant colleges, granges, and credit associations until the rise of modern corporate farming in the 1950s were quite effective in promoting an agrarianism that has now for the most part vanished from the United States. 
  15. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 36. 
  16. On contemporary American income tax data, see variously: Tax Foundation, “Summary of Latest Federal Income Tax Data,” December 22, 2014; Catey Hill, “45% of Americans Pay No Federal Income Tax,” MarketWatch, April 18, 2016; Jim Miller, “The Tax Man Cometh, and California Rich—Getting Richer—Pay Most,” The Sacramento Bee, April 14, 2016. 
  17. My used $20,000 Honda seems to have all the appurtenances (e.g., air conditioning, stereo, electric seats) of a one-percenter’s new $100,000 Mercedes sports car that I recently parked next to in the Stanford University parking lot, and is certainly superior mechanically to the car of any Goldman Sachs buccaneer of the 1990s. 
  18. Scheidel does not argue for particular political agendas, but his emphasis on war as the more effective leveler has some commonalities with skeptics of the New Deal, who attribute widescale ensuing prosperity and the rise of the consumer middle class more to World War II than to prior government social engineering; see for example, Burton Folsom, Jr., New Deal or Raw Deal?: How FDR’s Economic Legacy Has Damaged America (New York: Threshold Editions, 2009); Amity Shlaes, The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (New York: Harper Collins, 2007). 
  19. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 71–2. 
  20. Polybius, 36.17.5. 
  21. Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 444.