Inequality: Better to be Greek or Roman?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Oftentimes when we discuss whether or not economic inequality is justifiable, we have the tendency to consider only the most extreme form of the left wing position. The right often defends its model of the  market economy by comparing it to the old communist states, to the Soviet Union–countries in which everyone, at least in theory, had the same income. In places like the Soviet Union, incentives fell apart. If you will be paid the same amount no matter how much work you do, there is little reason to do additional work. The trouble is that this argument straw mans all left wing positions as strictly egalitarian. The left wing position need not be that societies should be perfectly economically equal, it need merely be that much of the economic inequality we see is superfluous and unnecessary. That is the argument I intend to make today.

Lately, I’ve been playing around with a book called Oligarchy, by Jeffrey Winters. Winters considers the various ways that wealthy citizens have protected and advanced their unusually large personal shares of their nations’ wealth throughout history. He makes the point that extraordinary inequality is possible even in democratic societies. I mention him here because he also has done some really fascinating research on the distributions of wealth in two ancient societies–Rome and Athens. Both of these societies are quite unequal, with rich citizens who are hundreds upon hundreds of times richer than their poorest citizens. Yet all the same, the difference is striking.

Here’s Athens:

Population Segment Average Wealth (In 2014 USD, based on current historical research) Number of Times Wealthier than the Median
10 Richest Athenians $35.5 million 2,432
Next 290 Athenians $1.5 million 102
Next 900 Athenians $876k 60
Top 8,200 Hoplites $310k 21
Bottom 4,800 Hoplites $164k 11
24,000 Farmers $73k 4
120,000 Slaves $14k 1

The currency is converted into dollars via historians’ estimates of the amount of food a drachma (the Athenian currency) would buy a person in the agora. Athenian society was quite unequal. Much of the population was quite poor and subsisted in slavery.

However, inequality in Athens pales in comparison with inequality in Rome:

Population Segment Average Wealth (In 2014 USD, based on current historical research) Number of Times Wealthier than the Median
10 Richest Romans $2.1 billion 400,000
Next 590 Senators $52.5 million 10,000
40k Equites $10.5 million 2,000
360k Provincial Senators $4.2 million 800
9,300 Army Officers $78k 16
1.45 million Legionnaires and Workers $17k 3
12 million Slaves and Farm Laborers $5k 1

The Roman case is positively dire–slaves and farm laborers alone account for 86% of the population. Add in the legionnaires and workers, and the group earning above the poverty line is barely 5%. It’s no wonder the Roman Republic collapsed into empire. This distribution was clearly unsustainable.

This raises an important question for conservatives to answer–is there any reason to prefer being a person of median income in Rome, where that median provides a wealth of $5k, to being a person of median income in Athens, where that median provides a wealth of $14k, nearly three times larger? The answer, I would submit, it is that there is no good reason. Unless you are an extremely fortunate person and end up near the top of Rome’s hierarchy, you are almost certainly better off as an Athenian. An Athenian slave lives almost as well as a Roman legionary, at least in terms of food-buying power. An Athenian farmer lives nearly as well as a Roman officer. The Athenian hoplites live quite comfortably in a part of the wealth distribution that simply does not exist for any group in Roman society. In the United States, we might call these hoplites part of the “upper middle class”. Rome has no such class.

Winters also provides a similar model for the United States:

Population Segment Average Wealth (In 2014 USD, inflation adjusted from 2004 data) Number of Times Wealthier than the Median Earner
100 Richest Americans $10.1 billion 59,197
400 Richest Americans $3.7 billion 21,679
Top 1% $18.5 million 108
Top 10% $3.88 million 23
Bottom 90%  $170k 1

The United States is much wealthier than both Athens and Rome, as it should be–we are more than two millennia further advanced technologically than they were. What is remarkable is that the US is not nearly so destabilizingly unequal as Rome (which had to use iron-fisted authoritarian tactics to crush relatively frequent rebellions by the plebs), but nor is it anywhere near as equal as Athens. The incentive structure in Athens was sufficient to not only keep Athens around for centuries, but to enable Athens to experience surprising dominance for a polity of its size within its region.

The question then, is this: why can’t American wealth be distributed more like the way it was distributed in Athens? Conservatives in the United States have provided many sound arguments against the communist model, but they have not adequately addressed the question of scale. How big does inequality need to be?

This is where a reasonable left critique can come in and make a real difference. It’s easy enough to justify limited inequality as opposed to strict equality, but it’s quite another matter to justify making the system increasingly unequal well and beyond the point at which incentives kick in. In a world in which very few people on the left are still arguing for strict inequality, the right is straw-manning the left’s position when it invokes the incentives argument and compares redistributive policies to Soviet communism. There is a limit to how hard or long a person can work. Increasing stratification so as to increase monetary incentives inevitably has diminishing returns. Every time the conservative equates an effort to make us more like Athens with an effort to make us more like Moscow, he reveals himself to be an unreasonable extremist.

In theory, 99% all of the wealth in our society could belong to a single person. We know this would produce unacceptable misery and suffering. It would be morally repugnant. The conservative ought to not merely vaguely defend the status quo, he ought to provide a theory of inequality that shows that the present level of stratification is optimal on a scale that goes from the Soviet Union to the society dominated by the single plutocrat. We know both extremes are undesirable, the question is where on the scale we ought to place ourselves. The notion that it is possible that, upon reflection, we are not where we would like to be can hardly be controversial. It is the position that everything is awesome, that the distribution is already precisely what it should be without our having even thought about it in a serious way, that is naïve in the extreme.