In response to “Equal by Catastrophe” (Vol. 3, No. 2).

To the editors:

Victor Davis Hanson’s insightful review of The Great Leveler gave me a most useful synopsis before reading Walter Scheidel’s book. I am neither an economist nor an historian of Professors Hanson’s or Scheidel’s caliber. Any expertise I have lies in strategic decision-making and at the operational level of war. Perhaps because of my broader academic shortcomings, The Great Leveler struck me differently and somewhat more positively than it did Hanson. That said, I do strongly agree with his overall assessment that the book “is a cautionary tale to policy makers who believe in economic redistribution as a means to level the playing field,” and was also pleased that he thought “the prose and arguments… not easy to follow.” The book is not an easy read and I am quite certain that truly fathoming the Gini coefficient is unlikely within my immediate future. Happily, and to Scheidel’s credit, its in-depth understanding is not a prerequisite for benefiting from the book’s narrative.

In a nutshell, and although perhaps not his intent, Scheidel confirms in extraordinarily well-researched detail what I have believed for some time: that economic equality, much like Thomas More’s Utopia, is a pipedream when any given society finds itself mired in peace and prosperity. Blame it on the Darwinist in me. The question the reader must come to grips with is whether or not the cure for inequality is worth the medicine required to get there.

None of the massive mobilization war-related levelers that Scheidel uses as examples were fought with the objective of improving society’s overall lot. While you can certainly make the argument that all had economic underpinnings, it would be a stretch to say that the goal was equalization of economic opportunity. These were wars brought on by some of the basest motives and subsequently flawed decision-making in modern history. Even the American Civil War, which after the Battle of Antietam in 1862 took on the mantra of slave emancipation, was fought for political reasons.1 Slavery was assuredly the underlying cause; but, only a very small minority of Americans—North or South—held any notion of postwar economic leveling for either emancipated slaves or even immigrant urban slum dwellers. The New York City draft riots of mid-July 1863 certainly laid bare any notion that a kinder or gentler post war society would likely ensue.2 The reality is that any temporary upsurge in economic equality that occurred in the wake of these three calamitous events was wholly unintended. While this is perhaps nonsensical to say, if you could ask any of the twenty seven thousand humans who died every day during World War II for their assessment of the end result, my guess is that they would tell you they had been better off before the shooting started, regardless of the step on the economic ladder they had previously occupied.3 None of that detracts from Scheidel’s assertion that his first horseman is a potential leveler of economic inequality. Unlike Hanson, I see no implication that the book’s author is making a value judgement on the morality of war as a driver of social improvement. In fact, Scheidel mentions numerous other wars that, however huge in scale and horrific in their own right, had little or no impact on economic inequality. I found his thoughts on mass mobilization as a key differentiator enlightening, although would hasten to add that it was the resultant mass casualties that were the real factor.

A similar sentiment carries over to discussion of violent revolution. Unlike Hanson, I did not sense any attempt to “slide over,” as he puts it, the human cost of the revolutions cited. Specific to the Russian Revolution and its subsequent Chinese counterparts, Scheidel clearly lays out the human cost, whether execution and deportation of kulaks in the former, or the millions that died during the Great Leap Forward. Interestingly, and regarding both of his first two horsemen, he goes to some length to identify examples of war and revolution that do not support his thesis. I found his candor refreshing. As he makes clear and Hanson underscores, revolutionary leaders, like their political and military counterparts in war, have precious little interest in bringing about widespread economic opportunity. Ultimately, these are political events settled by force and when the smoke clears, the leaders and their inner circle invariably seem to eat better than the man in the street.

Scheidel is quite consistent throughout his narrative with the theme that precise quantitative data is often unavailable, especially in the wake of system collapse and plague, or for that matter, in any study that goes as far back as his does. Hanson also alludes to the challenge facing the modern historian with his observation that the “rather mysterious and abrupt end of the hierarchical Mycenaean world in the thirteenth century BCE led to depopulation.” Those of us who are members of the large non-expert, but nonetheless keenly interested, group of historians by avocation are thankful to scholars who are both expert and courageous enough to make educated value judgements based on limited empirical evidence. The beauty of studying history has a lot to do with the poetic license it gives us to reach our own educated conclusions.

Scheidel’s discussion of his third and fourth horsemen, system collapse and plague, was most enlightening and in no way suffered in the telling from lack of empirical data. That both were levelers there can be no doubt. You do not have to be an economist to understand the value of labor in a society where anywhere from a quarter to forty percent of the population is dead. What I did find fascinating was Scheidel’s recounting of how the former “haves,” including the Church, initiated tireless efforts to institute wage controls once it became clear that labor was in the driver’s seat and anxious to press its advantage. Preservation of one’s station is clearly a well-developed human instinct.

Humans are flawed creatures, the ramifications of their flaws proportional to their place in society. Kaiser Wilhelm II’s megalomania almost singlehandedly precipitated the catastrophe of the World War I.4 the damage inflicted by a workingman’s poor judgment is probably limited to deterioration of his own condition, or perhaps the perpetuation of his family’s generational poverty. Seemingly beyond the scope of Scheidel’s book, Hanson rightfully touches on flawed decision making with his observation that “expanding entitlements can encourage consumption and dependence rather than industry and thrift.” Are the trappings of economic equality as important as its substance to many of those who can least afford them? Scheidel briefly makes the interesting point early in his book that real economic improvement passes from generation to generation. In simple terms, and in an era where personal saving is at an all-time low, is it more important to have a 60-inch Ultra HD television in the family room, or a meaningful state 529 college savings plan?

There is another human component that is integral to the discussion, but which receives little attention in either Scheidel’s book or Hanson’s review. It is easy to vilify those who throughout history single-mindedly and ruthlessly achieved leadership positions, or even those who aligned themselves with such leaders, as inevitable toadies. Scheidel does so frequently. After all, throughout history, members of the much maligned one percent seem extraordinarily adept at parlaying positions of ruthlessly-earned power into personal gain. We should remain mindful that it takes large doses of initiative and courage to organize and lead. It does not always end well. Being “buried alive, dismembered, shot, or strangled” when the winds of leadership change suggests the risks of occupying a link too near the top of the food chain.5 The better the view, the farther the fall. Using China’s Great Leap Forward as an example, the safer route might well be the one chosen by many well-off peasants who decided not to expend the efforts necessary to rise above subsistence farming, in order to fly below the radar. Better poor than dead.6 But, if obscure safety in mediocrity had been universally practiced over the millennia, where would that leave the history of human progress? For all its faults, the human condition is better today than it was almost any time in our past. Perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to the dastardly one percent. Hanson pointedly reminds us that today they pay nearly half of all federal tax revenue.

Hanson also points out that Scheidel concludes his book with the admonition that we should be careful what we wish for, pretty much summing up both their thoughts on the desirability of true economic equality. Beyond academic and political circles, it cannot help but make one wonder if the average working class family really yearns for universal economic equality, or whether its pursuit is purely an intellectual exercise. Regardless of where you are on the economic scale, leveling is a zero sum game, and it is no mere coincidence that the “five famously redistributive societies—Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, and Sweden” seem to attract considerably more of today’s refugees than less enlightened European countries.7 If, as demographer David Coleman tells us, by 2050 between a quarter and a third of the populations of Austria, England and Wales, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden will be immigrants, and the majority of the population of the Netherlands and Sweden will be foreign-born by 2100,8 can we predict what the reaction of longer tenured citizens might be somewhere along that glide path? Scheidel addresses the question himself with his prediction that some number of these redistributive societies might find themselves compelled to adopt the less-redistributive American model.9 Ironic indeed, as US lawmakers grapple with related issues at this very moment.

With that in mind, Scheidel’s statement that “the four traditional levelers are gone for now and unlikely to return any time soon” might need to be held in abeyance.10 That first horseman of mass-mobilization war requires reappraisal. Today’s refugee crisis, spawned by relatively small and localized events, is rapidly becoming a problem far out of proportion to the scope of its genesis. We are just beginning to observe, not yet fully comprehend, the potential levelling ramifications of mass migration. Perhaps a fifth horseman is cantering onto the scene.

Few would deny that a better life for all is a worthy goal. Most would probably also opine that it is unachievable in times of peace and prosperity and certainly not worth the price of the catastrophes The Great Leveler describes. I came away from reading Scheidel’s book with the feeling that his feet are firmly planted in both camps and, as a result, I do not see the attempt at conversion to the righteousness of economic equality that Hanson sees. The book’s subtitle adequately describes the author’s limited objective: describe the role of violence and provide an extremely well-researched history of inequality. Some might believe that just by writing the book, Scheidel has taken a strong position on the issue of eradicating economic inequality; others may be disappointed because his position on achieving it is not strong enough. I would politely disagree with both sides.

From the perspective of someone who typically focuses on the causes of human-generated catastrophe (war) and how it is managed once underway, the book added considerable insight into seldom-considered results—too many of which are created by entirely non-altruistic human manipulation. For students of income inequality, Scheidel adds to an obviously already robust body of literature. Regardless of where you stand when you pick up the book, you will find yourself a better informed protagonist or antagonist of economic equality when you finish it. If it is the former, then by all means, be careful what you wish for.

Vincent Goulding

Victor Davis Hanson replies:

I thank Vincent Goulding for his commentary. Along with Walter Scheidel, I think all of us can agree that, given innate differences in personalities and cultures, a lasting equality of result is too often the cargo of either unpalatable and lethal constant state coercion or natural and human-induced disasters, whose equalizing remedies are far worse than the proverbial illness of inequality.

Vincent Goulding is a retired Marine infantryman whose final active duty assignment was Marine Corps Representative at the U.S. Army War College where he taught strategy and operations.

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

  1. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation did more than free slaves in the unoccupied South. It also opened the door for recruitment of African-American soldiers in a war where the manpower costs were becoming critical. Approximately 179,000 served in the Federal Army and 19,000 in the Navy. 
  2. What started as demonstration against the draft quickly developed into something more akin to a race riot between white immigrant workers and the black community. See Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990). 
  3. Accepting that sixty million people died between 1939 and 1945, as cited in Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). 
  4. A judgment on my part. While there a dozens of books dealing with the causes of WWI, consider Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August (1962), Robert K. Massie’s Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1991), or Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (2013). Massie probably makes the best indirect case against the Kaiser. 
  5. 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), 225. 
  6. Ibid., 275–6. 
  7. Ibid., 245. 
  8. Ibid., 247. 
  9. Ibid., 428. 
  10. Ibid., 442.