Global inequality in historical perspective.

Author:Jolly, Richard

During the 18th and 19th centuries, political economists wrote about inequality as a central issue of their time, important as a mechanism of development and for its links with poverty and social harmony. Adam Smith declared:

'Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affl uence of the few supposes the indigence of the many.'

Smith emphasized the way such inequality led on to the need for government to maintain law and order.

'The affluence of the rich excites the indignation of the poor, who are often both driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions. It is only under the shelter of the civil magistrate that the owner of that valuable property... can sleep at night in security... The acquisition of valuable and extensive property, therefore, necessarily requires the establishment of civil government.'

Smith though blunt, was measured. Thomas Paine writing two decades later presented his analysis with pre-Marxian vitriol. He focused on land as the source of inequality.

'It is very well known that in England (and the same will be found in other countries) the great landed estates, now held in descent, were plundered from the quiet inhabitants at the conquest. The possibility did not exist of acquiring such estates honestly... That they were not acquired by trade, by commerce, by manufactures, by agriculture or by any reputable employment is certain. How then were they acquired? Blush, aristocracy, to hear your origin, for your progenitors were Thieves...When they had committed the robbery, they endeavoured to lose the disgrace of it, by sinking their real names under fictious ones, which they called Titles. It is ever the practice of Felons to act in this manner.'

By the mid 19th century, industrialization had advanced and poverty had deepened, especially in the towns in the United Kingdom. The statistics suggest that in terms of income distribution little had changed. The average income of the richest five per cent was still some 80 times estimated income per head. By this time, John Stuart Mill and Marx had taken up the cudgels. Mill, though considering the acquisition of individual property through one's own labour as just, wrote damning indictments of the origins of the actual distribution of property in Europe at the time.

'The social arrangements of modern Europe commenced from a distribution of property which was the result...

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