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A Brief History of Equality

Thomas Picketty
Published by Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press in 2022

French economist’s socialist take will appeal to some more than others.

Originally published in The Journal Gazette, May 1, 2022.

For individuals familiar with Thomas Piketty’s work, perhaps bigger news than the release of a new book is “Brief” being included in the title. A sample of previous titles by the widely cited French economist weigh in at 776 pages (“Top Incomes: A Global Perspective,” 2010), 685 (“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” 2014), and 1,093 (“Capital and Ideology,” 2020).

Even more than its manageable length, “A Brief History of Equality” is important reading for anyone concerned with how communities pursue what it may mean for all people to be equal. Some readers will understandably find Piketty’s commitment to socialist, democratic federalism problematic. Other readers will understandably find Piketty’s commitment to interdisciplinary study as liberating as incomplete.

Regardless, perhaps the greatest value of Piketty’s most recent dispatch is his argument that “nearly everything remains to be invented.” In essence, a community’s commitment to equality means “movement toward more social, economic, and political equality” and deems rationales such as “that’s the way we’ve always done it” insufficient. A “boundless imagination,” in contrast, is what proves necessary.

Some readers will understandably note that 288 pages is hardly brief. Such an assertion is fair. Depending upon the numbers one reviews, 288 pages may be slightly longer than the average adult, non-fiction title.

Fortunately, Piketty breaks his effort into 10 relatively accessible chapters one can digest in 30- to 45-minute increments. For readers unaccustomed to wading into the depths of economic jargon, Piketty’s ability to unpack terms and concepts the average reader may not know also proves commendable.

At the core of those 10 chapters is Piketty’s twin-fold purpose of offering “a comparative history of inequalities among social classes in human societies” and, more generally, “a history of equality.” In an attempt to shape expectations about what he means by history, Piketty argues he does not recount “a peaceful history, and still less a linear one.” As a result, his chapters are more thematic in organization than students of history may desire.

Those themes are also shaped by a history Piketty views as being defined by “a series of revolts, revolutions, and political movements” – products of his sympathies with socialism as well as the French Revolution. He thus views the movement toward equality as “a battle that can be won, but it is a battle whose outcome is uncertain.” The good news, according to Piketty, however, is that “human progress exists. … The available data are incomplete, but there is no doubt about the tendency.”

Those 10 thematic chapters follow a trajectory that opens with that good news. To that end, the first two chapters note the progress made over the course of the past two to three centuries with the critical markers to which Piketty points, including health, education and income.

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 explore the legacy of colonialism, slavery, debates about reparations, and how social structures such as the relationship shared by taxation and voting rights affect status and class.

The back half of Piketty’s volume, typified by Chapters 6 and 7, detail that optimistic history, demonstrating how movement toward equality occurred between roughly 1900 and 1980. Perhaps some of Piketty’s most imaginative insights emerge in Chapter 8, where he argues that “one of the biggest difficulties is to succeed in combating tenacious prejudices [which perpetuate inequalities] without rigidifying identities.” Chapter 9’s focus on neocolonialism is likely better placed in the first half of the book.

Piketty concludes by lobbying for the debatable desire to accelerate “the transition toward socialist, democratic federalism, which should remain the ultimate objective.” He is likely right that mounting environmental challenges – challenges that often disproportionately plague the poor – will demand international cooperation. Looking to Chinese socialism for insights to fire our imaginations proves an intellectual cul-de-sac for a number of reasons, some he acknowledges yet some he does not.

Piketty’s intellectual breadth, while impressive, poses another challenge when contending with a question as critical and complex as equality. Lessons from “history, economics, sociology, law, anthropology, and political science” define his effort. The empirical nature of many of those disciplines, however, leaves questions addressed by normative practices such as theology and philosophy unanswered.

As a result, although Piketty references Plato and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in passing in his introduction, his definition of equality is, at best, assumed. Other questions concerning what is the good in equality as well as what we value in one another, at best, lurk in the shadows of Piketty’s otherwise important book.

Perhaps the most important word in the title of Piketty’s book is not “Brief” but “A.”

Piketty’s brief history of equality is worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with this crucial effort. Some readers will understandably find his commitment to socialist, democratic federalism problematic. While a valiant attempt, other readers will find his interdisciplinary effort incomplete.

As a result, his history is best read as one person’s history.

Firing imaginations concerning this critical topic demands more than Piketty offers. A work of 1,000 pages still would not suffice absent lessons from theology and philosophy.

Todd C. Ream serves on the higher education and honors faculties at Taylor University, as a fellow with the Lumen Research Institute and as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review. He is the author, most recently, of “Hesburgh of Notre Dame: The Church’s Public Intellectual.”