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
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.