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Thomas Piketty: A New Look at the History of Equality

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Thomas Piketty On Equality

The grand sweep of history gives us reasons to be optimistic, argues renowned economist Thomas Piketty in his latest book, A Brief History of Equality. Since the end of the 18th century, “there has been a real, long-term tendency toward equality,” he says.

We asked Piketty why he wrote this surprisingly hopeful book, and what we can do to build a more equal world.

Author - Editorial Staff

Date - 19 October 2023

Time to read - 3 min

This book draws on your earlier works but is also very different. What led you to write a book on equality? 

It’s partly a response to readers’ requests for a short book. My three major books are around a thousand pages each, enough to discourage many motivated citizens from reading them. I review the main lessons from those books here, explaining the basic facts of inequality and the reasons for its persistence and recent growth. But A Brief History of Equality does not content itself with just synthesizing previous ideas and findings. It also presents a new perspective on the history of inequality. 

This new perspective seems more optimistic. 

It puts more stress on equality, that is, on positive developments over the long term. Since at least the end of the eighteenth century, with the French and American Revolutions and the revolt of the slaves in Haiti in 1791, there has been a general movement toward equality. The march has been nourished by revolts against injustice, within countries as well as internationally, moving us away from societies of privilege and colonialism. It is a movement that has never completely stopped. On income and assets, we are today very, very far from the concentration levels of the early twentieth century, as well as previous centuries. Even since the 1980s, a period of rising concentration, we have continued on the path toward equality as inequalities arising from gender and origin, and between the global North and South, have diminished. In the long term, the march toward equality is very clear. I really want to insist on that. 

What does the book tell us about how to continue that progress? 

Partly we need to learn our history, to recommit to what works, to institutional, legal, social, fiscal, and educational systems that have promoted equality. We need to resist cultural separatism and excessive intellectual specialization. We also need to reverse certain trends. A few decades ago, for example, we invented an almost sacred right for people and companies to accumulate fortunes that depended on the public infrastructure of a country and then transfer assets to another jurisdiction, leaving the bill to the rest of the population. It is necessary to put an end to the free movement of capital without tax or social compensation. 

You place a stronger emphasis on environmental questions and answers than in the past.  

The questions are more urgent and are clearly bound up with questions of inequality. The richest 1% on the planet emit more carbon than the poorest 50%. Nearly four billion people live in the countries that will be the first to suffer the consequences of the lifestyles of the richest. A proportional carbon tax hitting the poor and the rich the same way—and in practice often exonerating the latter—is not the solution. It will only lead to new revolts in the North, as well as the South. Only a strong reduction of inequalities and the significant involvement of the richest countries will resolve these contradictions. 

How would you classify the book? It’s academic, but also impassioned. 

It’s a work of history and social sciences but also a call for civic mobilization. Looking at how we have moved toward equality helps us understand what needs to be done now. Unfortunately, this learning process is often weakened by historical amnesia and the compartmentalization of knowledge. I argue that economic issues are too important to be left to a small class of specialists and leaders. Citizens’ reappropriation of knowledge is essential for transforming power relations. This book contributes to that cause. 

A Brief History Of Equality By Thomas Piketty