The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century

How only violence and catastrophes have consistently reduced inequality throughout world history


Sep 18, 2018
5.25 x 8 in.
45 b/w illus.
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Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The “Four Horsemen” of leveling—mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues—have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.

An essential contribution to the debate about inequality, The Great Leveler provides important new insights about why inequality is so persistent—and why it is unlikely to decline anytime soon.

Awards and Recognition

  • Shortlisted for the 2017 Cundill History Prize, McGill University
  • Shortlisted for the 2017 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award
  • strategy+business Best Business Book of 2017 in Economics
  • One of The New York Times Deal Book “Business Books Worth Reading” 2017 (chosen by Andrew Sorkin)
  • One of The Wall Street Journal’s What Business Leaders Read in 2017
  • Selected for The HCSS Bookshelf (chosen by Stephan De Spiegeleire) 2017
  • One of BBC History Magazine’s Books of the Year 2017
  • One of the Microsoft Best Business Books of 2017
  • One of Project Syndicate’s Best Reads in 2017 (chosen by Dambisa Moyo)
  • One of the Economist.com “2017 Books of the Year” in Economics and Business
  • One of Financial Times (FT.com) Best Books of 2017: Economics, chosen by Martin Wolf
  • One of The Wall Street Journal’s What Business Leaders Read in 2017, chosen by Mohamed A. El-Erian
  • One of the CNBC 13 Best Business Books of 2017
  • One of World’s 2017 Books of the Year in “Understanding the World”
  • Medium.com’s Books of the Year 2017, chosen by Mark Koyama