Walter Scheidel: The great leveler: violence
and the history of inequality from the stone age
to the twenty-ﬁrst century
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2017, xv + 504 pp,
USD 35.00 (cloth)
Published online: 18 May 2017
Ó Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017
The topic of inequality, never ignored, has roared back into scholarly fashion following the
2008 ﬁnancial crisis and the publication of Piketty’s (2014), Capital in the Twenty-First
Century. It is now hard to avoid the topic. I therefore approached Walter Scheidel’s new
book with a degree of trepidation (‘‘another book on inequality… sigh’’). I shouldn’t have
done so. The Great Leveler is a fantastic piece of social science.
Scheidel, a classicist by training, is a true interdisciplinary social scientist, synthesizing
data from modern America, medieval Europe, mid-twentieth century Spain, Republican
Rome, and Communist Russia. He begins by offering a brief history of inequality.
Early human societies were egalitarian. From this egalitarian base, greater inequality
was an inevitable consequence of the rise of sedentary agriculture. The emergence of
storable surpluses gave rise to some individuals who were not only richer than others, but
able to transfer their resources to the next generation. This dynamic meant that in settled
and stable agrarian societies, inequality tended to grow. The rise of such economic elites
preceded, but was in turn strengthened by, the formation of states. As more powerful states
emerged, this in turn gave rise to structural inequalities that reinforced and exacerbated the
original economic inequality.
Commerce, markets, and trade generated both greater prosperity and a general tendency
towards greater inequality. The reason for this is that in very poor societies, precious little
surplus can be extracted; poverty bounds potential inequality. As economies grow, so does
the maximum possible level of inequality, denoted by the inequality possibility frontier
(Milanovic et al. 2011).
Larger empires were associated with higher levels of inequality. Thus the nobles of the
Akkadian Empire were richer than those of the Sumerian city states that had preceded it.
The nobles of the Roman Empire were some of the richest individuals in human history
relatively speaking (i.e. when their wealth is measured as a share of GDP).
& Mark Koyama
Center for Study of Public Choice, George Mason University, MSN 183, 4400, University Drive,
Fairfax, VA 22030, USA
Public Choice (2017) 172:545–548