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A few points on the prehistory of inequality

Not to be outdone by Thomas Piketty and his treatise against inequality, Ian Morris, writing for the New York Times, claims to have discovered "even deeper insights": namely, that "each age has gotten the inequality it needs, different economic systems functioning best with different levels of inequality."

This seems like an extraordinary claim until you notice what he actually means: we had the economies we had, with their associated levels of inequality, rather than different ones. "Needs" is doing some hilarious work here, because usually people are the ones who need things; but for Morris, it's the age itself that needed the inequality, in order to be the age it was. It's exactly like saying that the Middle Ages needed the Black Death, which I guess is true in its own way.

Morris would probably object to this paraphrase, but the rest of his article doesn't add much. He flirts, rather artfully, with much stronger claims - for instance, he plainly means to suggest that people (not just "ages") need inequality, in order to flourish. The main points of evidence: a series of rigorous-sounding prices on living standards throughout history, which rise from $1.10 a day for hunter-gatherers to around $25 a day now.

Nevermind that the figures he is citing "are based not on empirical evidence, but on unsubstantiated and demonstrably implausible theories" - and nevermind that Morris himself called them "rather misleading" in a caveat he curiously omitted from this version of the article. Comparing living standards in such radically different societies is a notoriously intractable problem; it's easy to assume that we'd prefer modern life to the world of the caveman, but as Wittgenstein famously asked, "Would the caveman?" It's not clear. We may have better toys and creature comforts today, but the science suggests that we are psychologically maladapted to this world, and far more stressed.

But nevermind all that. These are serious objections, and it's remarkable how uncurious Morris seems about them - but even if we take his numbers at face value, he never actually makes the crucial demonstration that we "needed" inequality to earn them.

Instead, that claim is simply assumed in the neoclassical capitalist lens through which he views history. Successful societies have always needed inequality because they "needed more complicated divisions of labor"; from that premise, it necessarily follows that "specialists providing crucial services can turn these into political and economic power, driving up inequality". Both of these claims are far more extraordinary than Morris is willing to acknowledge, and both, of course, are precisely the claims that critics of inequality typically dispute.

Perhaps societies don't need particularly complicated divisions of labor to flourish, even if such divisions have occasionally been productive; or perhaps you can divide and regulate labor in such a way that specialists can't leverage their position to accumulate power, even if attempts to do so have occasionally failed. History is replete with extremely similar claims about the economy that we now regard as obviously incorrect. Feudalism, for example, insisted that human flourishing depended on a division of labor that was not just complicated but completely static; it also insisted that specialists would always be able to turn their roles into political power, and were quite literally entitled to do so. All of this, of course, proved conveniently advantageous to the beneficiaries of the status quo by proclaiming the virtue and inevitability of inequality; it too was corroborated by simplistic historical anecdote, though the scientific mechanisms dictating inequality were never quite worked out.

So it is with Morris. Consider, for example, his claimed advantage over Piketty's analysis: his "longer-term perspective" which looks "all the way back to the end of the last Ice Age, 15,000 years ago." Morris credits an alleged improvement in living standards - dubious for reasons already noted - to the advent of farming, and claims that "farming society needed more complicated divisions of labor than the foraging world"; moreover, farmers are claimed to have "flourished at the expense of" those hunter-gatherers, so that eventually "almost all foraging societies went extinct." Thus, we have a case where human flourishing apparently depended on a division of labor, displacing any society that refused to adapt, and with the (perhaps) regrettable but ultimately advantageous trade-off of increased inequality.

This is tendentious every step of the way, and grossly simplistic.

First, the claim that foraging societies depended on a division of labor necessarily and significantly less complicated than farming societies simply has no basis in anthropology. As Michael Jochim notes, such arguments "have treated groups as if they were composed of undifferentiated foragers, but it is clear that hunter-gatherers are not homogenous." Their survival entailed a broad range of tasks: not just hunting and gathering, but food preparation, toolmaking, childraising, and so on. All of this labor was typically divided along sex and age lines, and based on skill levels as well; for instance, the Magdalenian groups of 15,000 years ago had their own specialist stoneworkers who had dibs on the highest-quality flint.

Second: the great advance of the Neolithic revolution was that humans discovered a food source which relieved them of some of their greatest hardships. It was reliable, it required fewer calories to secure, it didn't fight back, and it could be cultivated and harvested in a set location. All of these advantages could be enjoyed by a single or relatively small group of people, which is why we have subsistence farming. The domesticiation of agriculture had all kinds of well-known second-order effects as well - for instance, the sedentary lifestyle it facilitated led to the emergence of cities - but crucially, its immediate advantages required no division of labor.

So much for Morris's "necessity" of inequality. Just by going about their daily business, and unknowingly practicing artificial selection on preferred plants, foragers radically changed their ecology for the better. It's true that divisions of labor helped people exploit this resource even further, but humans might have foregone that entirely and they would still be better off today than they were before.

Of course, besides farming, there was something else that dramatically improved the lives of humans at the end of the ice age: the end of the ice age. Food supplies became far more abundant; vast tracts of previously inaccessible land opened up as the glaciers receded; even the weather was nicer.

That fact is worth bearing in mind, because for tens of thousands of years, living standards were crushed by climate conditions that no amount of human ingenuity could overcome. Which brings us to the third point: if, as Morris recommends, we take the long view, it's not entirely clear that inequality has brought us any progress at all. The domestication of agriculture is another matter, but the emergence of large scale farming through divisions of labor may represent the moment when human civilization began its suicidal, unconstrained mass exploitation of natural resources -- a trend that leads in a straight line to our pollution of the environment through our addiction to fossil fuels. What Morris sees as the key to human progress may very well be our undoing, because it threatens to bring on another climate change that will once again destroy human flourishing for the foreseeable future.

So we return to my paraphrase, which is probably fair: we could not have had a society built on inequality without inequality. This, of course, is entirely compatible with Piketty's argument, but it's not exactly a "deeper insight"; and looking back into prehistory adds little to any of this, except perhaps to give the usual apologetics for inequality an arcane new spin.