The Great Leveler

The Great Leveler : Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

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Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that it never dies peacefully. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world. The "Four Horsemen" of leveling--mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues--have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future. An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent--and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 528 pages
  • 133 x 203 x 38.1mm | 498.95g
  • New Jersey, United States
  • English
  • Reprint
  • 45 b/w illus.
  • 0691183252
  • 9780691183251
  • 82,986

Back cover copy

"If you think you've heard it all about economic inequality, think again. Walter Scheidel's analysis of what really reduces inequality is provocative, but he makes the case with reason, evidence, and style."--Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

"Brilliant, erudite, and chock-full of historical detail, The Great Leveler has a powerful message and asks a big question for the twenty-first century: Can we find a cure for inequality that isn't worse than the disease?"--Branko Milanovic, author of Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization

"This is the best book on the history of income inequality. And the central message is that most significant reductions in inequality come through violence and destruction. Have a nice day!"--Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream

"This brilliant and thoroughly researched book solves a major paradox in the study of historical inequality. If we accept Thomas Piketty's rule that returns on capital are greater than the rate of economic growth, the 10,000 years of evolution since the Neolithic period should have resulted in all wealth becoming concentrated in the hands of a single individual or family. The Great Leveler explains why that didn't happen. A major breakthrough in our understanding of the historical dynamics of income and wealth inequality."--Peter Turchin, author of Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth

"Inequality and violence are fundamental features of human society. No one before Walter Scheidel has shown us just how closely they have been intertwined. This is a masterful new assessment of an age-old problem."--David Stasavage, coauthor of Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe

"The Great Leveler makes a convincing case."--Robert J. Gordon, author of The Rise and Fall of American Growth

"This superb, and superbly written, book justifies its profound but pessimistic conclusion that in world history inequality has declined significantly only as a result of violent changes caused by wars, state breakdown, or pandemics. It should have a huge impact on world historians and generate interesting and important debates about growing inequality in today's world."--David Christian, author of Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History

"Walter Scheidel offers a fascinating and powerful analysis of how worldwide income and wealth inequality have evolved from the Neolithic revolution to today. No other book on inequality has the temporal breadth or reach of Scheidel's book. And his interpretation is strikingly new."--Philip T. Hoffman, author of Why Did Europe Conquer the World?
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Review quote

"One of The Wall Street Journal's What Business Leaders Read in 2017, chosen by Mohamed A. El-Erian" "Medium.com's Books of the Year 2017, chosen by Mark Koyama" "One of World's 2017 Books of the Year in "Understanding the World"" "One of the CNBC 13 Best Business Books of 2017" "One of Financial Times (FT.com) Best Books of 2017: Economics, chosen by Martin Wolf" "One of the Economist.com "2017 Books of the Year" in Economics and Business" "One of Project Syndicate's Best Reads in 2017 (chosen by Dambisa Moyo)" "One of the Microsoft Best Business Books of 2017" "Selected for The HCSS Bookshelf (chosen by Stephan De Spiegeleire) 2017" "One of The New York Times Deal Book "Business Books Worth Reading" 2017 (chosen by Andrew Sorkin)" "One of BBC History Magazine's Books of the Year 2017" "strategy+business Best Business Book of 2017 in Economics" "Shortlisted for the 2017 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award" "Shortlisted for the 2017 Cundill History Prize, McGill University" "The Great Leveler should set off loud alarm bells.... The range of evidence is breathtaking." --Timur Kuran, Foreign Affairs "A readable and quirky history of economic inequality from the great apes to the modern day.... It is well worth the read. It is, in a word, gripping." --Victoria Bateman, Times Higher Education "Sweeping and provocative." --New Yorker "Mr Scheidel's evidence is so persuasive that readers will find themselves cheering on the Black Death as a boost to median wages." --Janan Ganesh, Financial Times "Walter Scheidel's The Great Leveler is a smartly argued book.... For anybody who has ever debated issues related to inequality and their broader meaning, this book provides more than just a powerful thought experiment." --Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times "A superb book." --Steven Pinker, Times Literary Supplement
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About Walter Scheidel

Walter Scheidel is the Dickason Professor in the Humanities, Professor of Classics and History, and a Kennedy-Grossman Fellow in Human Biology at Stanford University. The author or editor of seventeen previous books, he has published widely on premodern social and economic history, demography, and comparative history. He lives in Palo Alto, California.
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Rating details

524 ratings
3.87 out of 5 stars
5 26% (136)
4 42% (221)
3 26% (136)
2 5% (25)
1 1% (6)
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