To the extent that experts did focus on inequality within countries, they did so with respect to the late industrializers, where migration from poor villages to richer cities was accentuating income disparities.Even there, however, inequality was considered a temporary side effect of development; the economist Simon Kuznets argued that it dissipated with modernization.
For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers.
Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking.
But in the decades that followed, something puzzling happened: the economies of Germany and Japan grew faster than those of the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. In his 1982 book, , the economist Mancur Olson answered that question by arguing that rather than handicapping the economies of the Axis powers, catastrophic defeat actually benefited them, by opening up space for competition and innovation.
In both Germany and Japan, he observed, the war destroyed special-interest groups, including economic cartels, labor unions, and professional associations.
World War II devastated the economic infrastructures of Germany and Japan.
It flattened their factories, reduced their rail yards to rubble, and eviscerated their harbors.Had Olson considered inequality, he might have noticed that World War II had two other curious economic consequences.The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality.‘Inequality’ is a way of framing social problems appropriate to technocratic reformers, the kind of people who assume from the outset that any real vision of social transformation has long since been taken off the political table.It allows one to tinker with the numbers, argue about Gini coefficients and thresholds of dysfunction, readjust tax regimes or social welfare mechanisms, even shock the public with figures showing just how bad things have become (‘can you imagine?But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.There is a fundamental problem with this narrative. Overwhelming evidence from archaeology, anthropology, and kindred disciplines is beginning to give us a fairly clear idea of what the last 40,000 years of human history really looked like, and in almost no way does it resemble the conventional narrative.Olson’s findings had a disturbing implication: in politically stable countries, narrow coalitions of business lobbies hold back economic growth through self-serving policies, and only a major military defeat or a grisly revolution can overcome the resulting inefficiencies.Back when Olson was writing, few economists cared about economic inequality in advanced countries; unemployment and sluggish investment were the problems of the day.David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of ‘agricultural revolution’ remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality.