society Reviews

Thomas Piketty’s A Brief History of Equality review: The idea of justice

The book is an engaging read, presenting a rich array of data, as well as insights from Piketty’s earlier work as well as the work of hundreds of historians, economists and other social scientists in 250 pages. 

The book is an engaging read, presenting a rich array of data, as well as insights from Piketty’s earlier work as well as the work of hundreds of historians, economists and other social scientists in 250 pages. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” While justice has always been an important value for humanity through history, arguably the idea that justice is realised in socio-economic equality is a modern one. Those among us who are inclined more quantitatively than philosophically may be tempted to ask, how far along the arc have we travelled? Thomas Piketty has an answer. We’ve come a long way from the dark depths of the era of slavery and colonialism, but still have a long way to go. To illustrate, in France the extreme concentration of wealth that was the hallmark of the 19th century, is no longer the case in the 21st century. But the poorer half of the population did not own any property on the eve of the French Revolution, and that remains the case today. The beneficiaries of the “great redistribution” of the 20th century were the “patrimonial middle class”, the middle 40% of the wealth distribution who own mainly housing wealth and intangible human capital. The story is similar in other western societies.

Rich data

The book is a very engaging read, presenting a rich array of data, as well as insights from Piketty’s earlier work as well as the work of hundreds of historians, economists and other social scientists in 250 pages. The result is that the reader will learn about the debate over reparations in the United States, the economic benefits of colonial drain to the colonial powers, the history of voting legislation in Sweden, the evolution of income tax, continuing religious, racial and gender gaps in Europe, efforts to reduce caste gaps in India, the global inequality in CO2 emissions and much more. Written for a broad audience without compromising much on technical matters, in addition to the interested lay reader, the book is also well-suited for undergraduate courses. India figures prominently in the book, both with respect to its colonial history and its post-Independence attempts to reduce caste-based inequalities.

Long reach of colonialism

My favourite chapters are ‘The Heritage of Slavery and Colonialism’, and ‘The Question of Reparations’. While it will not be news to anyone in this part of the world that the European powers owed a significant part of their rise in the 19th and 20th centuries to slavery and to wealth stolen from their colonies and semi-colonies, the numbers still hit hard. It is difficult not to get angry when reading the cold fact that the first independent Black republic, Haiti, paid three times its 1825 GDP as compensation to its French slave holders between 1840 and 1950. Apart from the moral repugnance of slaves paying slave holders compensation, this effectively destroyed Haiti’s chance of becoming economically independent, and the country suffers the consequences to this day.

Documentation and amelioration of past injustices are crucial parts of the book’s argument. When discussing affirmative action Piketty notes that in addition to positive discrimination instituted in favour of the historically disadvantaged, it is necessary to stop legal forms of discrimination still prevalent against them. For example, in many countries, including the western democracies, public spending on education still favours the relatively well-off, which perpetuates racial, ethnic, class or caste based inequalities intergenerationally. Incidentally, Piketty notes that “no Western country has ever implemented social or racial quotas in a way comparable to what has been done in India.”

Piketty frequently reminds us that all economic consequences are results of political choices. Rules that govern the production and distribution of wealth and income have been repeatedly made and broken in history. But it is often desperate times that have called for desperate measures. Wars, revolutions, depressions, play a crucial role in the march towards equality. Sometimes, it is the presence of a threat (an “outside option” as it were) that does the trick. For example, the marginal tax rate on top incomes in the U.S. reached 90% in the 1950s and 1960s. And remained over 60% through the 1970s, until the Reagan revolution. Without claiming causal certainty, Piketty points out that the presence of the Soviet Union was likely a significant factor in pushing progressive changes of all kinds in the western democracies in this period.

‘Unique’ India

Because we cannot expect growth to reduce the hyperconcentration of property on its own (as Piketty says, if that had to happen it would have been noticed by now), a restructuring of the tax system plays a crucial role in continuing the (somewhat stalled) march towards greater equality. Piketty’s proposed system has top effective (not only marginal) rates of 90% on top incomes, properties and inheritances. “Top” here means 10,000 times higher than average. To those who dismiss such proposals as unrealistic, Piketty points to history and shows how things that appeared impossible a few decades or centuries ago, became “common sense” over time, including universal access to education and universal adult suffrage. On this last point, there are many fascinating tidbits such as in Sweden, between 1865 and 1911, the number of votes was dependent on how much tax he (gender intended) paid and how much property and income he had. In fact, the history of the evolution of voting systems presented in the book makes us appreciate the uniqueness of countries like India, that instituted universal adult suffrage around the same time as much richer European countries.

It is true that, to use a much over-used phrase, we have only picked the low hanging fruit, and the rest of the road towards equality will be much harder. Piketty’s suggestions strike at the heart of capitalism and are unlikely to come about without a political movement on a global scale. Though he recognises the crucial role of conflict and confrontation in the progress made thus far, Piketty remains optimistic for a democratic (if not peaceful) transition to a more decommodified economy — a society where health, education, art and culture, transportation, housing are, for the most part, outside the market economy, and are publicly produced for all. We can at least join him in celebrating progress made and gear up for the long road ahead.

A Brief History of Equality; Thomas Piketty, translated by Steven Rendall, Harvard University Press/ HarperCollins, ₹699.

The reviewer teaches Economics at Azim Premji University.


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Printable version | Jul 16, 2022 7:58:47 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/thomas-piketty-equality-people-society-book/article65626521.ece