Inequality–now and then

What Is

Income inequality has been a big topic in public discussion for the past few years—and understandably so. Inequality in the United States continues to increase. I have even written about this in past years during my days as a parish minister and a denominational official. The effects of inequality are perverse, creating twisted relationships, exploitation, and threatening the foundation of democratic socieity.

What are the deep sources of such inequality? Some argue that growing inequality is inherent in capitalism, that capitalism is a system that over time leads to greater concentration of wealth. There is certainly a lot of modern data to support this. And, of course, it is an argument that Karl Marx made 170 years ago. 

But what if we look at the great scope of human history? What if we look back over the centuries and across the planet? I think a pretty obvious pattern jumps out: inequality is inherent in all civilization. If we go back centuries and look at ancient Rome, the empires of the Inca, Aztecs and Maya in the western hemisphere, China, Japan, Greece and others we see the same thing. We see a few people amassing great wealth and the subjugation of the vast majority. 

In order to find cultures where there is relative equality we really need to go all the way back to hunting and gathering cultures. Alas, there was little inequality mostly because no one had much of anything. Inequality comes to human history with agriculture and the organization required to maintain an agricultural economy. With organization comes hierarchy. With agriculture comes, for the first time, surplus production. Guess who gets most of the surplus? It goes, of course, to those with more power in the hierarchical structure. This is the pattern that repeats itself century after century in every part of the world. 

With the advent of industrialization the economy was radically transformed, with fewer and fewer people involved in producing food and more and more people concentrated in cities. However, hierarchy endured. Power was shifted from control of land to control of production and control of money, but inequality of power and income (money is a form of power, after all) remained. 

In the last century we have seen the emergence of communist socieities. However, look at what happened in Russia and China. While the ideology was one of equality, the reality was a concentration of power and privilege. Not only that, but centrally planned economies proved to be terribly inefficient and brutal. 

There are simply no examples in human history of agricultural or industrial societies that do not have tremendous levels of inequality. Even where the system appears to work best (I would think northern Europe probably does best), inequality is increasing. 

And yet. All this inequality exists despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of people do not want this level of inequality and, just as important, most people do not believe that such concentration of wealth is just. 

So What?

If inequality arises “naturally” from the organization of civilization and if the vast majority of us do not want the level of inequality we see in the world, what are we to do? (By the way, I find it fascinating that people do not mind some level of inequality.) 

First, the ideal of complete equality that pops up in communist and anarchist philosophy is a fantasy. I think most thoughtful people realize this. 

Second, to bring the level of inequality down to a point that most people believe is fair is going to take a huge change in our culture, in our politics and in our economy. And it is going to take constant vigilance and tweaking, for the tendency to concentrate power and wealth is baked into the complex organization that is the necessary for a modern society. Actually, some level of hierarchy is necessary for any society beyond the most basic. 

This isn’t going to be easy. As a good friend humorously remarks when facing a daunting challenge, “This could take weeks!”. 

2 thoughts on “Inequality–now and then”

  1. History – at least the recent history of market capitalism – shows that gross inequality is resolved by blowing up all the wealth through war and starting over. Remember WWI, WWII and the great depression. Don’t forget Napoleon. A better way is — well I don’t know, but we better think of something.


  2. There appear to have been empires throughout recorded history, yes. But also, there have been societies that were far more egalitarian. For instance, most of Northern Europe from the Neolithic right through until now. Judging by the Gini index, most of Eastern, Central, and Northern Europe are much more equal than the US, which ranks with mostly developing nations. France, the UK, and the Commonwealth countries are in-between. I don’t think inequality is a built-in function of civilization; I think it is how civilization is implemented. Perhaps our inequality is rooted in Anglo-French values and systems – maybe enabled by the introduction of paper money and the financial system based in it, an Anglo-French innovation (long after China had invented and abandoned it).


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