The Great Leveler Book Summary By Walter Scheidel

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The Great Leveler, published in 2017, is a book that examines the inequality faced by different societies across time.

It reveals how catastrophic events such as wars, plagues and other disasters have served to level the unequal distribution of power and wealth across societies.

The author poses the provocative question: Can equality be achieved by peaceful rather than violent means?Through detailed research and analysis, The Great Leveler brings insight into this difficult yet important area of social history.

It not only offers an understanding of inequality through various historical lenses but also imparts thought-provoking lessons for today's world.

The Great Leveler Book

Book Name: The Great Leveler (Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century)

Author(s): Walter Scheidel

Rating: 3.4/5

Reading Time: 20 Minutes

Categories: History

Author Bio

Walter Scheidel is the author of the book The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century.

He holds degrees in both history and biology, and is currently a professor of humanities at Stanford University.

His vast bibliography includes a great number of books like Slavery in the Ancient World, which was heavily praised by critics.

Given his impressive academic profile, it's no surprise that he is an incredibly qualified writer for this particular subject matter.

In The Great Leveler, Walter delivers a comprehensive look at violent events throughout history and how they've shaped inequality around the world.

How History Can Teach Us About Combating Inequality Today


The Great Leveler by Stephen Ploch provides an eye-opening look at why democracy and capitalism have been inefficient in eliminating inequality.

Despite how democratic societies swear to promote fairness and equality among its members, the evidence shows that this hasn’t been the case.

The author highlights a plethora of examples from different countries throughout history, showing how terrible events such as pandemics and wars are the ones that actually push the needle on reducing inequality.

Further sections of the book take an in-depth look at the various government efforts to reduce wealth gaps, with varying results.

Through learning about past attempts – both successful and unsuccessful – readers will be much more informed on what to do today if they wish for a more equal world for all.

How The End Of The Ice Age Worsened Inequality Despite Increased Quality Of Life And Technological Advances

When the last ice age was coming to an end 11,700 years ago, humanity entered a period of climate stability known as the Holocene.

During this time, people in the Middle East began cultivating land and producing food which generated a surplus.

This led to disequalization, with some individuals having more land, resources and power than others.

This newfound structure led to the emergence of intense inequality in society – something that hadn’t been seen before with hunter-gatherer societies where equality was present.

As technology and quality of life improved throughout history, inequality only seemed to become worse and enter deeper into our lives.

Evidence from archaeological remains dating all the way back to 11,000 years showed larger households in certain areas compared to smaller ones which had access to fewer resources such as small fish for consumption.

Even in small tribal communities couldn’t avoid inequality when technological advances came around like the Chumash who had developed canoes that allowed men to venture further out into sea for better fishing opportunities, thus granting them control over trade items such as food and shells as thanks from other villagers for their safety.

It’s clear that a better quality of life brought about inequality before technological advancements made it even worse – something that we are still dealing with today.

How Private Property Inequality Began: The Story Of Ancient Societies From Sumer To Aztecs And Incas

In the beginning, land ownership was egalitarian and based upon sharing amongst families.

This was true for civilizations such as Sumerians in South Mesopotamia, Aztecs in Mexico, Incas in Peru and even ancient Chinese.

Property wasn’t concentrated amongst certain people yet; it was freely shared amongst them.

However, things did not stay this way for long; capital holders soon began to accumulate property by buying up land, then charging yearly interest rates which no one could pay off.

If the family couldn’t pay, they had to take drastic measures – like selling their land or themselves into slavery.

In this way, property became concentrated among certain circles while others were deprived of any rights of owning any share of it.

The Collapse Of The State And Plague: The Unfortunate Causes Of Social Equality In Europe

Social Equality

Throughout the history of Europe, inequality has been kept in check by both the collapse of state-run governments and the devastating effects of plagues.

One of the earliest instances when inequality was readily apparent was during 200-400 CE – at the later years of the Roman Empire.

The population had become increasingly large and urban areas were particularly wealthy at that point in time.

Unfortunately, this led to an ever-widening divide between rich and poor classes within society.

But with the fall of government structure, that gap started to even out as wealth began to filter its way down to lower classes rather than being monopolized by wealthier elites.

The process would have to start once again when political structures reemerged during the middle ages, making a high point during feudalism when land ownership became concentrated among small groups of powerful people.

In contrast, however, was plague which struck Europe in various years throughout its history.

By wiping out millions of people – especially those in disadvantaged positions – it resulted in a drastically increased demand for labor which doubled wages for many families living in rural or city centers.

This effectively closed off economic gaps between rich and poor created by previous events such as political destabilization or extreme power allocation among limited numbers of citizens.

Ww2 Led To Unprecedented Shrinking Of Inequality In Japan And Other Combatant Countries

Before the outbreak of WWII, Japan was an imperial power and its population was rapidly expanding.

The Japanese Empire had a population of almost 500 million people – one-fifth of the world’s population at the time – and extended its power to countries like China, Burma, Papua New Guinea and other islands in the Pacific.

Although Japan’s army advanced quickly during the war, it ultimately was unsuccessful and suffered devastating losses in life and wealth.

This meant that those in higher social classes took a significant hit, with the wealthiest one percent losing over two-thirds of their wealth; their share dropping from 9.2 percent to 1.9 percent.

The war had a dramatic effect on reducing inequality in Japan as economic plans implemented by post-war governments siphoned off wealth to finance military costs, significantly weakening the upper class.

This drop highlighted a notable narrowing in social inequality throughout many other countries involved in WWII such as Germany, France and Great Britain.

All this to say that although inequality was rampant before WWII, it lessened drastically after; an undeniable outcome provoked by one of history’s most brutal wars.

The Russian Revolution Showed How War Can Be Used To Reduce Inequality

The 1917 revolution in Russia was the result of a growing dissatisfaction among the lower and middle classes over inequality within their society.

The war between nations had done little to curb such inequality, as indirect taxes on goods affected both the rich and the poor.

But that didn’t stop citizens from revolting against those who were wealthier than them.

In November of 1917, the Bolsheviks – led by Lenin – staged a coup and conquered St.


With their newfound power, they wasted no time in passing a law that redistributed land amongst its citizens while also banning private property ownership and closing down personal bank accounts.

This meant that 500,000 landowners and 125,000 affluent families had everything taken away from them, leveling out inequality through organized and violent efforts.

In addition to this redistribution of wealth, thousands were killed during the revolutionary period – mostly from noble heritage – ensuring that capitalism never returned to Russia’s society.

Through violence and public policy measures, the 1917 revolution in Russia created an atmosphere where all people were equal members of society regardless of class or financial standing.

The Collapse Of Somalia’s Government Unexpectedly Led To An Improvement In Living Conditions

Somalia's Government

It is undeniable that Somalia’s government collapsed in 1991, but what followed was actually a surprising improvement in the country’s living standards.

After the fall of the dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre, violence and poverty fell significantly.

Subsequent studies revealed that during this time period, many measures of living standards had surpassed those found in the region post-conflict Somalia.

Furthermore, without state control, warlords and militias extorted money from the poor.However this money was less than formerly taxed imposed by Siad Barre government.

This unexpected trend continued until 2006 when Ethiopia invaded Somalia.

It is worth noting that due to lack of reliable sources available on Somalia these facts should be taken with caution.

Yet, it is undeniable that even though it followed a period of great turmoil, this collapse was ultimately beneficial for the overall wellbeing of the people living in Somalia.

Democracy Doesn’T Necessarily Equal Equality—Here’S Why

The idea that democracy and left-wing governments can provide a solution to the problem of inequality is outdated.

Studies carried out by economists Daron Acemoglu and David Stasavage found that there’s no consistent correlation between democracy and greater income equality.

Furthermore, left-wing governments were only slightly better at encouraging equality than right-wing ones.

This does not mean that solutions to inequality cannot be found however, as trade unions have been found to be very useful in tackling the issue of inequality.

By pooling their bargaining power in labor unions, employees are empowered to demand better pay and conditions from their bosses.

Unfortunately, due to current low inequality levels, trade union support – and its effect on equality – has substantially decreased.

In conclusion, it is clear that while democracy may not truly solve the issue of inequality, neither will left-wing governments or waning trade union support.

Therefore it is important for approaches outside of these solutions to be explored if true equality is ever going to be achieved in our societies.

Tackling Inequality: From Discussions To Concrete Reforms

Tackling Inequality

Economic reforms have been put forth as a potential way to reduce inequality and bring about change, but they have yet to be tested for feasibility.

British economist Anthony Atkinson laid out some measures that might help alleviate inequality – including increasing taxes on the wealthy and those with higher incomes, providing a minimum wage, and introducing a nationwide standard income for every child.

Europe has had discussions regarding the possibility of instituting a universal basic income for all citizens, employed or not.

Although these proposals are intriguing, their cost-effectiveness is unknown.

Globalization may present additional issues that stand in the way of these reforms being put into action.

Even if their application is successful, it could take years before any true equality has been reached – just look at Sweden’s level of economic equality compared to the UK as an example of this gap.

Still, progress is being made to even out the playing field; we just need a courageous state brave enough to take that first leap and try out these changes in policy.

Once done, we will see what real effects these economic reforms have on reducing inequality worldwide.

Wrap Up

The Great Leveler offers an insightful look into the history of equality and how it has been achieved.

Its key message is that neither capitalism nor democracy has been able to solve the problem of inequality within society, and thus violent and devastating solutions such as wars, political revolutions and epidemics have been needed to achieve it.

The book provides actionable advice on how to start small by joining or starting a local organization focused on ensuring equality, such as access to the internet, education and health care services.

It encourages readers to find ways to reduce inequality without resorting to destructive measures.

With individual effort and commitment, real change can be made – so what are you waiting for? Get out there, make your voice heard, and reach out to others!

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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