Walter Scheidel on what really reduces inequality: Violent shocks

ScheidelWhat really reduces economic inequality? According to Walter Scheidel, the surprising answer is something nobody would wish for: mass violence and catastrophe. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully—it consistently declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. Recently, Scheidel took the time to answer some questions about his startling conclusions:

What is the great leveler?

Violence is the great leveler, expended in massive shocks that upend the established order and flatten the distribution of income and wealth. There are four major types of shocks, which I call the Four Horsemen. That’s a fitting image because they were just as terrible as the bringers of doom in the Revelation of John. The first of them is mass mobilization warfare, which reached its heyday during the two World Wars when enormous physical destruction, confiscatory taxation, aggressive government intervention in the economy, inflation, and the disruption of global flows of trade and capital wiped out elite wealth and redistributed resources on a massive scale. These struggles also served as a uniquely powerful catalyst for equalizing political reform, promoting extensions of the franchise, union membership, and the welfare state. The second is transformative revolution, which was also primarily a phenomenon of the twentieth century, when communists expropriated, redistributed and then collectivized, in the process matching the World Wars in terms of body count and human misery. The collapse of states is the third one, not uncommon in the more distant past: everyone suffered when law and order unraveled but the rich simply had more to lose. Plague rounds off this ghastly quartet. On a number of occasions, most famously during the Black Death of the Late Middle Ages, epidemics carried off so many people that labor became scare and real incomes of workers rose while the land and capital holdings of the upper class lost value.

Your book covers thousands of years. Surely things must have changed over time?

Of course they have, but less than you might think. It was the sources of inequality that experienced the biggest changes. The shift to farming and herding after the last Ice Age let our ancestors create material assets that could be passed on to future generations, allowing some families to pull away from the rest. Later, as states and empires appeared and grew in size and power, elites filled their pockets with profits from public office, corruption, coercion and plunder. While this continues to be common practice in some parts of the world, in the West gains from commerce and enterprise have gradually replaced those more archaic form of enrichment. But even as these changes unfolded over the long run of history, violent shocks remained the most potent mechanisms of leveling.

But what about the postwar decades? Didn’t the economy grow and the middle class prosper at the same time as inequality declined?

That’s true, and that’s why many people in America and Europe look back to this period as a time of great progress and welfare. Current ideas of “making America great again” owe a lot to this happy convergence of affluence and equality, and reflect the understandable desire to somehow bring it back. But we must not forget that it was the carnage and the perils of the Second World War that undergirded the entire process. After the New Deal had ushered in progressive policies, it was the war effort that gave rise to the many invasive regulations and taxes that ensured that future gains would be more equitably distributed. This benign fallout from the war faded over time until a new round of liberalization, competitive globalization and technological change allowed inequality to soar once again. Since the 1980s, the economy has continued to expand but a growing share of the pie has been captured by the much-quoted “one percent.”

That’s a sobering perspective. Aren’t there any other factors that can combat inequality and don’t involve bloodshed and misery?

Absolutely. But they often fall short one way or another. Economic crises may hurt the rich for a few years but don’t normally have serious long-term consequences. By reducing inequality and prompting progressive policies, the Great Depression in the U.S. was a bit of outlier compared to the rest of the world. Perhaps surprisingly, political democracy by itself does not ensure a more equal distribution of income and wealth. Nor does economic growth as such. Education undeniably plays an important role by matching skills with demand for labor: most recently, it helped lower the massive disparities that have long weighed down many Latin American countries. Even so, the historical record shows that all of these factors were at their most effective in the context or aftermath of major violent shocks, such as the World Wars. Successful land reform, which is of critical importance in agrarian societies, has likewise often been the product of war and revolution or the fear of violent conflict.

This doesn’t raise much hope for the future. What are the chances that we will be able to return to a fairer distribution of income and wealth?

That’s a good question, although few people will like my answer. The traditional mechanisms of major leveling, the Four Horsemen, currently lie dormant: technological progress has made future mass warfare less likely, there are currently no revolutions on the horizon, states are much more stable than they used to be, and genetics will help us ward off novel epidemics. That’s a good thing – nobody in their right mind should yearn for death and destruction just to create greater equality. But similarly powerful peaceful means of leveling have yet to be found. And to make matters worse, a number of ongoing developments may drive up inequality even further: the aging of Western societies, immigration’s pressure on social solidarity and redistributive policies, and the prospect of ever more sophisticated automation and genetic and cybernetic enhancement of the human body. Barring major disruptions or an entirely new politics of equality, we may well be poised to enter a long period of polarization, another Gilded Age that separates the haves from the have-nots.

ScheidelWalter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of sixteen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He is the author of The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

Nancy Malkiel: Coeducation at university was – and is – no triumph of feminism

The 1960s witnessed a major shift in higher education in the Anglo-American world, which saw university life upended and reshaped in profoundly important ways: in the composition of student bodies and faculties; structures of governance; ways of doing institutional business; and relationships to the public issues of the day. Coeducation was one of those changes. But neither its causes nor its consequences were what one might expect.

Beginning in 1969, and mostly ending in 1974, there was a flood of decisions in favour of coeducation in the United States and the United Kingdom. Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the US; Churchill, Clare and King’s at Cambridge; Brasenose, Hertford, Jesus, St Catherine’s and Wadham at Oxford – many of the most traditional, elite and prestigious men’s colleges and universities suddenly welcomed women to their undergraduate student bodies.

However, as I argue in ‘Keep the Damned Women Out’: The Struggle for Coeducation (2016), this was not the result of women banding together to demand opportunity, press for access or win rights and privileges previously reserved for men. As appealing as it might be to imagine the coming of coeducation as one element in the full flowering of mid- to late-20th-century feminism, such a narrative would be at odds with the historical record. Coeducation resulted not from organised efforts by women activists, but from strategic decisions made by powerful men. Their purpose, in the main, was not to benefit college women, but to improve the opportunities and educational experiences of college men.

For one thing, coeducation was not on the feminist agenda in the 1960s and ’70s. The emerging women’s movement had other priorities. Some of these had to do with the rights and privileges of women in the public sphere: equal access to jobs; equal pay for equal work; legal prohibitions against discrimination on the basis of sex – the agenda, for example, of Betty Friedan and other founders of the National Organisation of Women in 1966. Other priorities concerned the status of women in the private realm, striking at societal expectations about sex roles and conventional relationships between women and men. One of the movement’s earliest proponents, Gloria Steinem, spoke out about such feminist issues as abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment; and in 1971, upon commencement at her alma mater, Smith College, she said that Smith needed to remain a college for women. Steinem argued that remaining single-sex was a feminist act. Like Wellesley College, Smith was at the time considering a high-level report recommending coeducation. And like Wellesley, Smith – influenced in part by Steinem and the women’s movement – backed away from taking such a step.

Just as the drive for coeducation had nothing to do with the triumph of feminism, so it had little to do with a high-minded commitment to opening opportunities to women. The men who brought coeducation to previously all-male institutions were acting not on any moral imperative, but were acting in their own institutional self-interest. Particularly in the US, elite institutions embarked on coeducation to shore up their applicant pools at a time when male students were making it plain that they wanted to go to school with women. Presidents such as Kingman Brewster Jr of Yale (1963-77) and Robert F Goheen of Princeton (1957-72) were forthright about their overriding interest: to enrol women students in order to recapture their hold on ‘the best boys’.

That the educational needs and interests of women were not uppermost on these men’s minds doubtless bears on the ways in which coeducation fell short of contributing to real equality between the sexes. That was true in the universities, where coeducation did not mean revolution. Contemporaries called the pioneering women students ‘honorary men’; they were included and assimilated, but they were expected to accept or embrace longstanding institutional traditions, not to upend them.

Nor did coeducation lead to a levelling of the playing field for men and women, during their college years or beyond. Coeducation did not resolve the perplexingly gendered behaviours and aspirations of female students. While women present credentials on entrance that match or exceed those of men, they still tend to shy away from studies in fields such as mathematics, physics, computer science and economics, where men dominate. Moreover, even in fields where women are well-represented, men, rather than women, achieve at the highest academic levels.

Women also make gendered choices about extracurricular pursuits: they typically undersell themselves, choosing to focus on the arts and community service, while declining to put themselves forward for major leadership positions in mainstream campus activities.

Just as importantly, sexual harassment and sexual assault are no more under control after more than four decades of coeducation than they were when men and women first started going to college together.

And women continue to face significant challenges in finding professional leadership opportunities and realising professional advancement. The handful of women CEOs in major corporations continue to be the exception, not the rule. Despite the fact that a second woman has now become prime minister of the UK and that a woman has for the first time won a major party nomination for president of the US, women are significantly underrepresented in the US Senate, the US House of Representatives, and the British Parliament. There continues to be a significant gender gap in salaries, from entry-level jobs to much higher-level positions. Achieving a manageable work-family balance is a persistent problem for women, with even the most highly educated female professionals facing pressure to step out of the labour force to raise children.

In short, coeducation has fallen well short of righting the fundamental gender-driven challenges that still bedevil our society. It has not succeeded (perhaps it could not have been expected to succeed) in accomplishing real equality for young women in colleges and universities, or in the worlds of work and family that follow.Aeon counter – do not remove

MalkielNancy Weiss Malkiel is professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, where she was the longest-serving dean of the college, overseeing the university’s undergraduate academic program for twenty-four years. Her books include Whitney M. Young, Jr., and the Struggle for Civil Rights and Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (both Princeton).

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.