In response to “Equal by Catastrophe” (Vol. 3, No. 2).
To the editors:
Victor Davis Hanson’s critique of The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel begins with a lucid summation of Scheidel’s central argument. Societies have been unable to rid themselves of economic inequality except by the most destructive of means: war, violent revolution, state collapse, and pandemic disease. Equality has thus been achieved through the ruination of the wealthy rather than the uplifting of the poor.
As Hanson observes, Scheidel’s thesis is provocative and well supported by historical evidence. But considerable countervailing evidence also exists. Numerous societies have imposed regulations upon themselves to limit inequality, Hanson rightly notes. Until very recently, land was the primary source of wealth in most societies, and societies often took care to restrict the size of landholding to avoid inordinate concentration of wealth. The rise of commerce expanded the possibilities for concentration of wealth, and industrialization increased them exponentially. Since the advent of the industrial revolution, governments, particularly democratic governments, have been ineffective at curbing that concentration.
Whereas Scheidel is focused primarily on the impersonal forces of economic supply and demand, Hanson emphasizes cultural factors. While it is often assumed that lower classes reflexively resent the upper classes of their societies, some cultures have inculcated values that undermine, if not eliminate, class envy. A prime example is the United States, where the emphasis on self-reliance and meritocracy fosters hope among the lower classes that they can rise higher in society. Other examples include Confucian China and its cultural offshoots, in which individuals are expected to accept their given places in society, whether high or low, as part of the natural order of the universe.
Scheidel’s preoccupation with macroeconomics also results in insufficient consideration of institutions and policies. As an abundance of recent research has shown, differences in institutions and policies account for widely different outcomes in national wealth and income distribution. Of particular relevance to Scheidel’s subject is the impact of policies and institutions on economic growth. The spectacular economic growth of China and India in recent decades are critical cases in point. Until the 1980s, the policies and institutions of China and India were aimed at minimizing economic inequality, with the result that they provided relatively low incentives to private investors and hence constrained growth. The liberal reforms of the 1980s made economic activity more profitable, resulting in much higher investment and economic growth. The affluent benefited the most from that economic growth because they held disproportionate amounts of capital and skills, and hence inequality increased, but the poor also benefited. The stunning reductions in poverty in China and India have been widely, and properly, celebrated as the fruits of economic liberalization. One suspects that the average citizens of China and India are more concerned with the rise in their own standard of living than with the higher rise of that of the wealthy.
Another issue that Scheidel might have considered in greater depth is individual personality. Psychological research indicates that people with certain personality types are much more likely than others to assume roles of leadership or entrepreneurship. Even in the most egalitarian of political movements, a relatively small elite has held leadership while the majority followed, and that elite almost invariably found ways to obtain higher incomes than the general population. For all the talk of flat organizations in the private sector today, enterprises that efficiently produce goods and services remain hierarchical. Leaders earn more than subordinates, which reflects the fact that leadership is more valuable to organizations than followership.
Hanson rightly questions how Scheidel can retain his faith in the goal of inequality after showing so persuasively that the quest for equality has generated much more harm than good. Many of the world’s great thinkers, from Aristotle and Confucius to John Locke and Edmund Burke, have seen economic inequality as the inevitable result of differences in individual aptitude, temperament, and motivation. The history of the twentieth century vindicated this view, and discredited the view of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Lenin that a classless society is feasible or even desirable. Scheidel’s notes of caution are commendable, but they are unlikely to dissuade those egalitarians who remain convinced that the ends of a classless society justify the means.
Scheidel might have devoted more attention to the question of how developed societies can increase the incomes of the lower and middle classes in an age when technological change and globalization have left many behind. The 2016 election in the United States reflected, to a considerable extent, the perception that open borders and open markets have helped America’s wealthy but hurt its middle and lower classes. The Trump administration is implementing several initiatives aimed at boosting incomes at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, including restrictions on trade and immigration. It also asserts that its tax reform plan will boost economic growth and hence increase wages across the board. Opponents protest that Trump’s tax cuts for the rich will allow the rich to become richer. They may be correct, but if the administration is correct in its prediction that these changes will lift all boats, then concerns about inequality will recede.
Victor Davis Hanson replies:
I thank Mark Moyar for his letter. I would agree further about the pivotal role of human psychology: at the most fundamental level, humans can be in the abstract quite aware of policies that enhance their own material welfare and yet in the concrete will reject them, if it means a small group of others will fare even better that the majority. Hesiod was prescient some 2,700 years ago that our strongest passions remain envy and jealousy, often trumping our own long-term self-interest.
Mark Moyar is the Director of the Program on Military and Diplomatic History at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.