Tight labor markets shrink income inequality by causing employers to bid up the price of scarce labor, so policymakers fretting about income inequality could give an epidemic a try. This might be a bit extreme, but if increased equality is the goal, Stanford University’s Walter Scheidel should be heard. His scholarship encompasses many things (classics, history, human biology) and if current events are insufficiently depressing for you, try his just-published book, “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.” Judge this book by its cover, which features Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
The tendency in stable, peaceful and prosperous societies is for elites to become entrenched and adept at using entrenchment to augment their advantages. The most potent “solutions” to this problem are unpleasant. They are disruptions such as wars, revolutions and plagues that have egalitarian consequences by fracturing society’s crust, opening fissures through which those who had been held down can rise. Scheidel says that mass-mobilization wars give the masses leverage and require confiscating much wealth from the comfortable. Revolutions can target categories of people considered impediments to the lower orders, e.g., “landlords,” “the bourgeoisie.” And the Black Death century was particularly helpful.