Sources of Inequality

In his recently-published The Great Leveller, Walter Scheidel summarizes evidence from archeology and anthropological studies to answer the question, Has inequality always been with us?

The answer is: Sort of yes. Inequality is a constant in societies that farm and herd. But farming and land ownership weren’t the only way for early or tribal societies to amass wealth. Among Native Americans, the introduction of horses was a generator of inequality: “In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Comanche in the borderlands of the American Southwest formed a warrior culture that relied on horses of European origin to conduct warfare and raids over long distances. Buffalo and other wild mammals were their principal food source, complemented by gathered wild plants and maize obtained via trade or plunder. These arrangements supported high levels of inequality: captive boys were employed to tend to the horses of the rich, and the number of horses owned divided Comanche households rather sharply into the ‘rich’ (tsaanaakatu), the ‘poor’ (tahkapu), and the ‘very poor’ (tubitsi tahkapu).”

He cites a study of twenty-one small-scale societies. “Researchers looked at three different types of wealth: embodied (mostly body strength and reproductive success), relational (exemplified by partners in labor), and material (household goods, land, and livestock),” and concluded that the two most important factors in the rise of inequality were the institution of private property and the transmissibility of wealth to the next generation. The two go together: Only property that has been claimed as one’s own can be passed on to one’s heirs. Scheidel writes, “transmissibility is critical: if wealth is passed on between generations, random shocks related to health, parity, and returns on capital and labor that create inequality will be preserved and accumulate over time instead of allowing distributional outcomes to regress to the mean.”

Mere domestication of animals or control of land and plants isn’t sufficient. Inequality arises when a society begins to rely on “defensible natural resources” that can be passed on to the next generation. By the same token, “plowing, terracing, and irrigation aren’t enough unless land can be owned and inherited.” Scheidel claims that “the heritability of such productive assets and their improvements fosters inequality in two ways: by enabling it to increase over time and by reducing intergenerational variance and mobility.”

Obviously, “political and military power contributed to and amplified the resultant inequalities in income and wealth.” There’s a symbiosis here: Political hierarchies arise in settled economies based on farming and herding, which already produce disparities in wealth. Political hierarchy, in turn, can increase inequality. A property owner who also exercises power over other members of a group is positioned to accumulate and pass on more wealth than a weak member of a group.

In sum, “Premodern states generated unprecedented opportunities for the accumulation and concentration of material resources in the hands of the few, both by providing a measure of protection for commercial activity and by opening up new sources of personal gain for those most closely associated with the exercise of political power. In the long run, political and material inequality evolved in tandem in what has been called ‘an upward spiral of interactive effects, where each increment on one variable makes a corresponding increment on the other more likely.’” Though premodern states were not very centralized by later standards, “rulers and their agents also provided protection in the sense that mafia organizations do in modern societies, capitalizing on the profits from their preeminence in the use of organized violence.”

Rousseau was right to this extent: Civilization produces inequality. If this is right, the question for egalitarians is: What price are you willing to pay for equality? Give up property ownership and the capacity to pass on an inheritance? Give up advanced civilization itself? By examining the dynamics that produce inequality, Scheidel’s book highlights the stakes of our contemporary debate.

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