Piketty has long been engaged in a heroic and commendable attempt to bring history and economics into dialogue with each other, and to show how the result can address extremely urgent public policy problems, in particular, the rising inequality within countries and its implications for national political cohesion or solidarity. This volume follows Piketty’s monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, Mass., 2013), and it is even longer (and heavier). The earlier work had a simple message, buttressed by massive statistical work originally focused on France but then extended to a relatively few additional countries. It could be summed up in three characters—r>g. Because the rate of return on capital exceeded the long-run growth rate, capital’s share of income underwent a steady increase. Piketty did not invoke only statistics; he also made frequent references to literature, especially Honoré de Balzac’s Père Goriot (Paris, 1835).
The new book is an impressive extension of the theme, with a wider geographical range of statistical material, including many of the non-European countries where Piketty’s work has served to galvanize teams of researchers. Capital and Ideology is more difficult to summarize than Capital in the Twenty-First Century, although the bottom line is still clear and obvious: Ideology matters; it is indeed decisive in shaping the outcome that Piketty described in the 2013 book. Rates of taxation can immediately change r but have little effect on g. What all societies need to do if they are concerned about inequality is to raise taxes. The 2013 book made that point at the conclusion; the 2020 book extends that message into a detailed blueprint for a utopia, or what Piketty terms participatory socialism and social federalism. If the solution to inequality is so easy, however, why do societies resist increasing tax rates? Piketty has a simple historical answer for the nineteenth century—because voting was constructed to be dependent on income or wealth (what Piketty calls a “censitary” suffrage). Britain’s exclusive franchise lasted longer than France’s, where the revolution of 1848 and the move to a republic after 1871 brought universal adult male suffrage. Sweden had a highly exclusive and inegalitarian franchise until World War I. Germany had universal male suffrage at a federal level, but since most fiscal decisions were made at a state level, what mattered was the state franchise, and Prussia (the dominant state) had one based on property.
In the late twentieth century wave of globalization, the obstacle to effective taxation is the hyper-internationalization of finance, and the fact (which Piketty illuminates brilliantly) that despite the much vaunted availability of big data, governments, central banks, and international institutions are failing to make that data available. Hence, it is easier to compile the historical data from the nineteenth century to the 1970s than to assess modern sources.
The beginning of the twentieth century was a turning point, when the balance began to turn against what Piketty terms the “proprietary ideology.” He focuses on the 1909 French law establishing the income tax and on Prime Minister Lloyd George’s nearly simultaneous People’s Budget and the constitutional conflict (reform of the House of Lords) that it produced in Britain. Joseph Caillaux, the French Finance Minister who launched his tax bill in 1907, becomes the key witness in Piketty’s thesis: He read out statistics in parliament to convince his audience that France was not really the country of smallholders that it pretended to be. Knowing statistics can be enough to change the world, or to impose taxes and reduce r.
Piketty develops another, historical, line of argument, concerned with the long-term persistence of what he terms “trifunctional logic,” the division of society into warriors (nobles), intellectuals (clergy), and the rest (the third estate or proletariat). A great deal of the book demonstrates not just the continuity of inherited wealth but also the dominance of aristocratic or noble wealth. Such an approach raises numerous comparative problems, since in some countries nobles (even though equipped with aristocratic privilege) might be poor. Piketty confronts those problems squarely, dealing in an interesting way with the modern analogues of the clergy in the ancient régime. An intriguing section of the book concerns an intellectual class, which grew enormously in number (as well as influence) as higher education expanded in industrial countries. Piketty describes how this new clergy assumed control of left-wing working-class or proletarian movements—the French communist and socialist parties, the British Labour Party, or the U.S. Democratic Party. The working class is no longer fully or properly represented by parties that now base themselves on cultural liberalism and internationalism.
Piketty wants to revive the move to egalitarianism that occurred in the early twentieth century. The most contentious and problematical claim in the book is that the compression of inequality was “well underway by the end of the nineteenth century, and it is reasonable to think that [this movement] would have occurred in one form or another even if [the First and Second World Wars, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Great Depression] had not occurred” (30). At the very least, this claim is debatable. The World War precipitated a national mobilization that made redistribution within the national community (and hostility to anyone excluded from that community) inevitable, as well as appealing, on intellectual as well as social grounds. Egalitarianism could follow only from the complete disruption of globalization (with all its costs). Scheidel’s The Great Leveler, which makes this point with great authority, adducing data from a long time range, receives no discussion in Piketty’s account.1 For Scheidel, wars, combined with famines and epidemic disease, are what reverse inequality. Piketty largely leaves war and war finance out of his account, and his extensive discussion of property and the French Revolution amazingly omits the assignat inflation. Piketty begins with an appeal to social scientists that they learn more history, but choosing which bits of history to include and which to exclude is always likely to be a matter for contestation.
Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, 2018).