The Austrian economic historian Walter Scheidel argues that throughout history, from the stone age onwards, pandemic is one of the only four events capable of bringing about greater equality. War, state collapse and revolution are the other three.
In his book The Great Leveler he showed how the Black Death in the 1300s led to the wipeout of a third of Europe’s population and massively reduced inequality by raising the price of labour. More recently, in the 20th century, two catastrophic world wars and the Communist revolution led to a long era of reduced inequality lasting until the early 1980s and giving rise to the modern welfare state, labour unions and progressive taxation.
Coronavirus’s transformative potential, Scheidel explains, consists in adding a shock to an already powerful groundswell of anger…
The most unequal democracies like the US and the UK, where inequality of income is estimated to be among the highest in Europe, could experience the biggest shifts. “The less equal countries face darker choices between carrying on as before and experiencing real change,” says Scheidel. “So, somewhat paradoxically, the potential for actual change is biggest in the less equal countries.”
By contrast, “If you are in China, the shock will not lead to more equalising policies. It will lead to a tightening of control and more business as usual…”