Scheidel, Walter (2017) The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 536 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-691-16502-8

Rolf Aaberge

Statistics Norway

This book was written to show that ‘the forces that used to shape inequality have not in fact changed beyond recognition’ (p. 22). This claim is justified by historical data records and the well-documented rise of wealth and market income inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient. The author argues that ‘Only specific types of violence have consistently forced down inequality’ (p. 6). The types of violence he refers to are pandemics (like the Black Death), state collapse (e.g. the Roman Empire), transformative revolutions (as in China and Russia) and mass mobilization warfare. His empirical results are derived from a broad economic history literature and his focus on individual inequality in market income and wealth is constrained by limitations in the historical data. Individual market incomes, however, do not provide a complete picture of economic well-being in European countries after the Second World War. Redistributive mechanisms such as progressive taxation and public cash and in-kind transfers have gained significant influence on the distribution of economic well-being.  Several studies carried out at Statistics Norway have shown that redistributive policies are of vital importance in most European countries, as illustrated by data for Norway where estimates of the Gini coefficient in 2013 decreased from 0.43 for individual market income to 0.18 when household sharing and redistributive policies are taken into account. Technological changes and lack of relevant tax policies may continue to produce increased concentration in market income and wealth, but the crucial and unanswered question is whether the accompanying increased economic power of the rich transforms into increased political power and weakening of the welfare state.