Book review: A brief History of Equality by Thomas Piketti

par Brigitte Panah-Izadi - Jeudi 21 Juillet 2022

Book review by Brigitte Panah-Izadi

A Brief History of Equality, By Thomas Piketti

In this insightful book, Thomas Piketti retraces the history of inequality, and very convincingly shows that progress towards a greater distribution of wealth in Western countries has been constant in the past 200 years. In Europe notably great efforts were made especially between 1910 and 1980 mainly because of the fear of the communism before and after the first world war.

In the USA, even during F.D. Roosevelt's times when the higher incomes were taxed up to 90%, prosperity and growth could occur. Investment in education was greater in the USA than Europe, and PIketti goes on to show that American youths had a better education than their European counterparts from 1950’s until the 1980’s. This contradicting the common view that inequality and encouragement to wealth accumulation brings about greater productivity.

Piketti goes on to demonstrates how this progress towards equality came to an end in the 1970-80’s. The promotion of Hayek liberal theories by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan encouraged the electorate in Western democracies to believe in the need to open up the economic systems to an international level. These new theories of liberalism coincided with the advent of a global economy, which Piketti argues, was particularly detrimental to poorer developing countries. Here is what he writes:” "the world's poorest states became poorer between 1970-1980 and 1990-2000, before recovering slightly in 2010-2020, but without returning to their (very low) starting point. The fall in revenue is almost entirely due to the loss of tariffs. It should be noted that reducing taxes on international trade is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, provided, for example, that they are replaced by direct taxes on the profits of multinational companies.”

He also points out the accumulation of wealth by high net worth individuals as shareholder of multinational companies who knew how to navigate through the international financial system to minimise their taxation.

Throughout his book, Piketti warns that in the past great changes have mainly occured drastically through revolution and violence because of some people’s resistance to indispensable reforms. He argues that violences are bound to increase if nothing is done to reverse the current process and return to a greater equality.

He nevertheless hopes politicians will find ways to improve the growing unbalances through greater taxation or even confiscation of wealth to cover public debt, as it occurred after world war II. And stresses the responsibility of our governments to proceed to these changes, towards a better redistribution. Otherwise, here’s what he writes could happen:
"We conclude by noting that the refusal to project oneself into the perspective of a social and democratic federalism can contribute to reactionary projects aimed at overcoming the limitations of the nation-state in an authoritarian way… Nature abhors a vacuum: if no democratic postnational project is formulated, then authoritarian constructions will take their place, in order to offer more or less convincing solutions to the feelings of injustice generated by the current economic forces. "

Since Piketti wrote his essay in 2020, The G20 agreed on a world wide tax of 15% for companies, which is definitely a step in the right direction. And the European Union responded very cohesively first to the Covid crisis (in allocation 750 billion euros) and secondly to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This leads to some optimism : the E. U is volens nolens, filling the vacuum described in the above quotation.

In PIketti’s ‘History of Equality’, there is also a lot to learn about particular countries’ attempts towards some equality. India’s government from the 1950’s reduced inequality of castes, with some success. On the other hand, the slow process of gender equality is also dealt with. In the following chapter, Piketti shows how late European countries were to allow women voting rights and financial autonomy. Also in the United State,s voting and financial rights were only introduced to women in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, although they had been in political debate and discussion since the 1880’s. In that respect the role of the U.S. Supreme Court in delaying this process is very edifying.

It is fair to say however that PIketti’s solutions to fight the current growing inequalities, and the drastic measures he advocates, fail to convince many experts and economists.

I personally want to point out that the book is without a doubt a clearer and easier to read in its original French version.
Many have complained about lengthy and convoluted sentences in the English translation. I therefore can only recommend if you can, the French version, clearer and easier to read.
Some people have also criticized the great number of statistics, but they didn’t disturb me and proved their point.

Whilst reading this book, a recurring question came to my mind. Wasn’t equality too ideological a concept? Weren’t better standard of living, comfort and the pursuit of happiness really what people wished for in their lifetime? And weren’t policies towards sustainable Growth, universal health benefits or a universal minimum wage a better way to achieve them rather than ‘Equality’?

But on the whole, ‘A Brief History of Equality’ is worth the read, if only because it convincingly shows that the current trend towards a general impoverishment on one side and the indecent wealth accumulation on the other needs to be addressed and rectified. The book also works as a reminder of the risks linked to the rise of discontent world wide stemming from this rising problem of the past forty years. Indeed a disappearing middle class and increased questions of food security can only worsen the problem.

Therefore In other words even if the quest and pursuit of equality is more of an ideology than a realistic means to improve the living standards and possibilities of education for most people, it is an important theme which deserves our attention. Even if after closing this book, I was still perplexed about the best way to achieve it.

Brigitte Panah-Izadi,
Tahoma, California, 21 July 2022

par Brigitte Panah-Izadi


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