If you are a political scientist you may like this book ....

The Society of Equals by Pierre Rosanvallon
(translated from the French)

The book is a political science treatment of efforts to create a "society of equals." I found some parts interesting but most of it was too academic for me. It may be of interest to political scientists, but there is too much detail for a layperson. I think the question of (economic) equality is a mainly a question of how much inequality can exist in a society without the society falling apart. Most people agree that not everybody deserves the same pay. People of high skill or in dangerous occupations deserve higher pay. But when does the ratio of high income over low (or average) income become excessive? There is only a brief reference to such ratios in the book and the problem is treated as one of principles rather than as one of numbers. I found the lack of such an analysis disappointing.

Here is a summary with emphasis on those parts that I found of interest.

Chapter 1 (The Invention of Equality, 63 pages) discusses the efforts to abolish inequalities that were based on the medieval class system where the top class considered themselves different in nature from the rest of the people. Privilege based on birth was to be replaced by a meritocracy. This was a driving force behind the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century. The book quotes approvingly writers who stated that "The progress of civilization depends on the number of merchants and artisans with a direct interest in expanding their industry. Conversely, a society in which (most) people live in a state of dependency, tied to the soil and subject to their masters, tends to reproduce itself without change" (p. 28). The main thrust was to achieve legal equality.

Chapter 2 (The Pathologies of Equality, 90 pages) discusses the effects of the industrial revolution and capitalism and the reaction to them. Meritocracy did not result in equality and various solutions were proposed. Communism was one of them and the book provides an interesting discussion of its origins and its inherently totalitarian nature. The book quotes Carbet (p.122) who wrote that there was no need for a pluralistic press because anxiety and opposition would have disappeared in a communist society. There should be only one newspaper per town and it "would be nothing more than the minutes of meetings and would contain only narratives and facts without any commentary by journalists." Another pathology was the introduction of National Protectionism and Xenophobia. The "Us versus Them" attitude reached its high in racism and segregation. The book attributes the absence of socialism in the United States to racism and to discrimination against new immigrants.

Chapter 3 (The Century of Redistribution, 44 pages) deals with the introduction of the progressive income tax in early twentieth century that resulted in what the book calls the Redistribution Revolution. In part, it was a reaction to fear of revolution by the poor. The idea had gained traction in the late nineteenth century: "Revolution can always be avoided by opportune reform" (p. 175). Redistribution policies became stronger after the end of World War II in 1945.

Chapter 4 (The Great Reversal, 46 pages) the reversal of redistribution policies in the late 1980's by introducing "Redistributive Justice" and the focus on distinguishing between luck and merit as factors for inequality and proposing equality of opportunity rather than equality. The book points out (p. 241) that it is hard to justify some inequalities as a result of merit. The ratio of pay between the higher and the lower paid workers is 6:1 for the 99% of the workers. But the average CEO's of major corporations in the U.S. was 150 times the average worker's salary in 1990 while it was 35 times that amount in 1974. The book attributes the recent high ratio to collusion between CEOs and boards of directors.

Chapter 5 (The Society of Equals: A Preliminary Outline, 47 pages) describes the author's proposals for a new policy of equality that is a refinement of Redistribution.

In my view fear of revolution has played a much bigger role than the author assigns to it. In 1945 there was fear of a communist takeover in several countries in Europe. Both Italy and France had strong communist parties and Greece was fighting a civil war against a communist insurrection. By the late 1980's communism has been completely discredited and in 1990 the Soviet Union ceased to exist, so the fear of revolution abated and the "great reversal" followed. What we have now is the rise of populist parties and religious fundamentalism that promise to create a just society. While such movements are at odds with each other and we are not in an immediate danger of a world revolution things are likely to change in the future. Therefore there is a pragmatic reason to introduce policies that attempt to smooth out excessive income differences.

Finally, a minor point. There are numerous references to events (for example, "July monarchy") that may be familiar to a French reader but they are not familiar to most American readers. Explanatory footnotes would have helped.