Piketty’s “A Brief History of Equality” (Review)

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Review of Thomas Piketty’s “A Brief History of Equality” (Amazon Sitestripe link).

Specifics: Translated from French by Steven Randall. Piketty is professor at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS and the Paris School of Economics, and Conductor of the World Inequality Lab.

Publisher:  2022, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London; ISBN 978-0-674-27355-9; Introduction and ten chapters; Contents; Lists; Index; footnotes are on pages; main text runs through page 44; entire book (hardcover) is 274 pages. Harvard owns the copyright.

Piketty is already known for authoring “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (2014) (my legacy review).  This book purports to be more modest.

For someone crusading to make the world a fairer place, the narratives are quite abstract, emphasizing France and other European powers more than the US.  The book maintains that the world has gradually become a more equitable place since the late 18th century, more or less about the time of the American and French revolutions, after which a “patrimonial” middle class became visible, Early, struggles concerned specifically colonialism and slavery, and then soon the exploitation of manual labor as the industrial revolutions came on.  But it was not always a straight line.  (Look at the 3/5 rule in the US).

He spends some space on reparations – but at first reimbursement of slaveowners when their “property” was freed.  Now in the most extreme corners of the left, the talk is about paying some descendants of slavery from institutions and possibly some overly privileged white individuals.  Reimbursement of slaveholders would seem to go in the opposite direction.

Piketty talks a lot about the whole idea of using property as a way to at least indirectly exercise power over other people, less favored, with rentiership.

Piketty migrates toward a discussion of inheritance and proposes “inheritance for all” as a component perhaps of universal basic income.

I can remember back in December 1972 siting in a drafty rowhouse in Newark NJ spying on Spock’s “People’s Parry of New Jersey” where angry activists wanted to limit income to everyone to $50000 a year, and to abolish all inherited wealth, as unearned by labor.  Equality was to be achieved by limiting the opportunities of or expropriating the property or money of the individually over-privileged.  It is time to raid and murder the czars and their families again. I was covertly an enemy, a privileged computer person then making $14K a year.

Piketty, however, speaks of dispersed or decentralized and localized participatory democratic socialism. Yes, he wants confiscatory income and wealth taxes and gleefully summarizes the time from FDR up to the start of Reagan when for a time the highest marginal income tax rate had been 91%.  It’s true, society seemed more stable except, well, for civil rights and segregation and exclusion of certain peoples from some places. 

On p. 217 Piketty writes “The idea that each country (or worse yet, each person in each country) is individually responsible for its production and its wealth from a historical point of view.” That indeed contradicts a statement in the Introduction of my own DADT-1 book, “My central question on personal values is this: do we believe in the principle that every adult person is totally responsible for himself or herself? This objectivistic notion would limit the responsibilities of government to consequentialism. Individuals, through their own conduct and performance, would become their own moral agents. An individual will, in principle, be held accountable for her actions regardless of biological or circumstantial parentage. When may an individual rightfully set her own personal priorities, and when should she consider the recognized and established interests of family and larger community first?”  Indeed, the answer to that postulate about personal agency had carried through to David Callahan’s 2004 critique of hyperindividualism and extreme capitalism, “The Cheating Culture”.

I do think that inequity, when it gets bad enough in volume, leads to social instability, especially when there is a sudden external hardship (as we saw in 2020 — but the cracks were starting to show as Trump got elected in 2016). The far Left attributes it to group causes (as does Piketty) but especially systemic racism (CRT), which in some sense absolves individuals unless they are somehow collared into Marxist-style indoctrination (as in some schools, apparently, if you follow “libsofTikTok” etc on Twitter; this sort of thinking gets blown up by social media algorithms). But I can see the idea of individually tailored reforms, like expected behaviors when individual adults do receive inheritances. If one inherits a house to live in, they (“e’) might reasonably be expected to keep it ready to receive refugees, for example. Imagine that.

In the last two chapters Piketty discusses moving away from “neocolonialism” (a euphemism indeed) to his vaguely constructed democratic socialism (maybe only after war or destructive revolution) and in the last chapter takes a comparative look at China, which he considers partially successful, having also partially returned the right of citizens to some private property (in 2004).  I don’t think the lockdowns some individual Chinese are living through now (for a future common good and safety) seems very tolerable.  Piketty also notes well the difficulties western countries, and their citizens will have with climate change, having created more than their fair share of the warming before developing countries had a chance (China is questionable).

(Posted: Sunday, May 8, 2022, at 4 PM by John W. Boushka)

Author: Jboushka

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