Researchers find evidence that, even in early societies, great inequality was followed by big uprisings. That might be on our horizon.
When inequality goes too far, societies feel the pain in violence and even social collapse. It’s something we ought to think about here and now.
Last week, researchers at 14 institutions around the world published findings that, across the world and over time, disparities in wealth rise as societies grow economically and increase in social organization. Inequality keeps growing until something significant derails it.
Even prehistoric evidence shows patterns in which peaks of inequality were followed by valleys of violence that reduced the gaps between social layers.
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Congress is working on tax legislation that will benefit the wealthiest families and the biggest corporations while pushing most people further behind, widening an already obscene gap between the top and everyone else.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s City Council is looking at ways to shrink the gap. Each possibility has significant downsides, and none would make a huge difference.
The causes of social change are usually a mix of factors, but inequality figures prominently across history. Early this year, Stanford historian Walter Scheidel published a book arguing that it takes something really bad — wars, pandemics or social unrest — to roll back inequality. The book: “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.”
We already know that more-unequal societies have a long list of problems, including poorer health outcomes for rich and poor alike, but the possibility that the solution may require a dramatic uprising caught my attention.
Tim Kohler, a professor of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology at Washington State University, was among the researchers who wrote about wealth disparities, for the journal Nature. He told me that “over the last four or five years, I’ve been thinking about this more, whether there might be pernicious effects from the levels of inequality we see in many places today.”
Since the 1970s, Kohler has been studying prehistoric societies in the American Southwest. In the absence of written records, he’s found other ways to measure levels of wealth and inequality — housing sizes, food stores, the presence or absence of luxury items such as artifacts that would have been acquired from distant cultures. That and other data are analyzed to give an indication of the degree of wealth disparity in a given society at a particular time.
In his studies of the Pueblo people, he’s found periods in which wealth disparities grow large. “At the end of each period,” he said, “there was a spike in violence, then a decrease in wealth disparities.”
Kohler studied several cycles of that pattern and said there are a couple of ways to interpret it. The declines in wealth disparities and the increases in violence could be caused by a third factor, perhaps lower agricultural production. Or it could be that the high degree of wealth disparities causes the increase in violence.
An article in The Conversation he co-wrote with WSU anthropologist Kyle Bocinsky last year said new research shows that droughts didn’t cause disruption in the absence of social disruption.
Kohler said, “Some degree of inequality is a function of a healthy society.” He asked me to think about what it would be like if everyone were living at a subsistence level and just scraping by. We’d all be equal, but how good a life would that be?
There has to be some surplus before there is inequality, but it’s also surplus that allows for social, scientific and artistic advances.
“Inequalities are a mark of advance,” he said, “but they can they get so high that they can have negative effects.” He mentioned research that shows a whole range of problems that accompany high levels of inequality — high infant mortality, high incarceration rates, less social mobility, etc.
Many other wealthy nations have found a balance that keeps inequality from becoming a destabilizing problem. Runaway inequality isn’t inevitable, but the U.S. has chosen policies (regressive taxes, a limited social safety net, lax regulation of some big businesses) that make it an outlier, with one of the greatest disparities between the very wealthy and the rest of society.
And right now, government at the highest levels is pursuing even greater inequality. If that doesn’t change, we’re headed for one kind of disaster or another.