Piketty tries to apply this scheme to many societies across time and space. His discussion is punctuated by numerous charts and tables: using a combination of extrapolation and guesswork to produce quantitative estimates for eras before modern data collection is a Piketty trademark, and it is a technique that it applies widely here, I would say with very good effect. It is, for example, surprising to see evidence that France on the eve of World War I was, at least, Following unequal than it was before the French Revolution.
But if there is a definite Francocentric feel to “Capital and Ideology,” for me, at least, the vast amount of ground it covers raises some tricky questions.
The first is whether Piketty is a reliable guide to such a large territory. His book combines history, sociology, political analysis and economic data from dozens of societies. Is he really polymath enough to achieve this?
I was struck, for example, by his extensive discussion of the evolution of slavery and serfdom, which made no mention of the classic work by Evsey Domar of MIT, who argued that the rise more or less simultaneous serfdom in Russia and slavery in the New World was driven by the opening up of new lands, which made labor scarce and would have led to higher wages in the absence of coercion. This happens to be a subject I thought I knew something about; How many other subjects are missing crucial elements of literature?
The second question is whether the accumulation of cases actually strengthens Piketty’s basic analysis. It wasn’t clear to me. To be honest, at one point I felt a sense of dread every time another company came on the scene; the proliferation of stories began to look like an endless series of digressions rather than the cumulative construction of an argument.
Eventually, however, Piketty returns to the heart of the book: his explanation of what caused the recent spike in inequality and what can be done about it.
For Piketty, the rise in inequality is basically a political phenomenon. The social democratic framework that made Western societies relatively equal for a few generations after World War II, he argues, was dismantled, not out of necessity, but because of the rise of a “neo-proprietorship” ideology. In fact, this is a point of view shared by many economists, but not all. Attributing inequality primarily to the inescapable forces of technology and globalization is out of fashion these days, and much more emphasis is placed on factors such as the decline of trade unions, which has much to to do with political decisions.