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The Great Leveler

Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century
Narrated by: Joel Richards
Length: 17 hrs and 31 mins
4.5 out of 5 stars (12 ratings)
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Publisher's Summary

Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The "Four Horsemen" of leveling - mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues - have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich.

Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the 20th century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.

©2017 Princeton University Press (P)2017 Tantor

Critic Reviews

"Sweeping and provocative." ( New Yorker)

What members say

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    3 out of 5 stars
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The main ideas are interesting but....

Downloaded this after hearing Jordan Peterson mention it constantly. I guess it has some valuable ideas but it's one of those things I think you could really get to the heart of in a few pages. Most of the book is then a historical exercise in backing up those ideas which is super boring unless you're obsessed with the subject. And unless you're an anthropologist or something like that it's really hard to judge the veracity of the author's conclusions as he doesn't seem to be trying too hard to test his theory, more that he's gathering evidence for it. I'm definitely not suggesting that he's wrong just that it all seems to go in one direction the whole time.

I'll be honest, I'm not obsessed with the subject and gave up in the end. It was too much like trying to eat a bowl of cardboard, just chewing your way through it for the sake of getting to the end.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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Emperical analysis of the problem

Excellently presented ideas. Would have liked it presented in chronological order though as I unexpectedly learnt so much history from this book.

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  • Donttreadonme
  • 14-07-2018

Both immense in scope and tragic.

This work is a terrific refutation of the egalitarian movements throughout history. The author shows that the only way inequality is truly ever leveled is by horrific events that bring mass casualties, massive property damage and mass famine. Not exactly a good track record for those who are still pushing that tired narrative of “equality of outcomes”.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Lauren L
  • 03-04-2018

As depressing as it is convincing

Mr Scheidel makes a controversial case - at least for those of us not well versed in this aspect of economics - and he makes it so convincingly that The Great Leveler is in fact a very dry read. Nonetheless the fundamental revelation (for that is what it is for me) about inequality and the forces conspiring to increase it, is powerful.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

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  • Varun
  • 10-02-2018

Content is not suitable for an Audiobook

The narrator has done a good job, but the content of the book is too technical to be suited to the style of delivery of an audiobook. I highly recommend that you read rather than listen to this book. There are many details and it becomes difficult not to get lost and stay focussed as the content is narrated.

14 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Jorge Alegria F
  • 10-09-2018

very well documented...and a bit scary

the whole idea is very strong. because the huge data is a bit redundant sometimes. but worth hearing it.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 01-08-2018

Amazing book that shows the inequality of the past

it was an amazing listen on the past present and future of inequality and the destabilization it causes. A bit pessimistic but realistic through and through.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Hudson Davis
  • 14-06-2018

wow

this book is one I wish wasn't true. very humbling. not only does inequality exist, it's way worse than we thought.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Anonymous User
  • 11-06-2018

Incredible Research BUT Extremely Dense

The Great Leveler is a look at the history of inequality throughout the world and the factors which may (or may not) reduce inequality. Scheidel considers 4 levelers: war, plague, revolution and state collapse. Scheidel does not cut corners, looking at a wide array of evidence to carefully conclude which factors reduce inequality, in what situations they reduce inequality, the various examples of this throughout history, and an analysis of the counterexamples. I would highly recommend reading this book, especially if one is a social scientist or economist, concerned about global inequality.

Scheidel presents his arguments in a very organized manner and it is easy to follow along. Additionally, Scheidel does not assume much in the way of prior knowledge. Scheidel presents the basic information researchers need to know to understand things like Gini coefficients and other economic measures of inequality. Additionally, Schiedel lays out the specific pieces of information pertinent to each historical case, though a rudimentary understanding of world history would be greatly beneficial.

While I found this book extremely useful, I could not rate the book as a five due to the writing style. Scheidel's is very erudite and the material can get dry at times. This text is not approachable to the average reader. While a person does not have to be a social scientist, economist, anthropologist, etc., to understand Scheidel's work, a person does have to have a fairly high baseline education level to understand what Scheidel is saying.

Overall, this is an incredible book. The research presented here is broad and deep. However, do not expect to get through this book in a day (or even a week).

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Soo Rose
  • 01-04-2018

An increase in why inequality exists.

Liked not loved this book. throughout the beginning and middle of the reading it continued to be very dry. The upside of this is the reasoning for how dry the material was in its concluding final chapters where all is needed in summary and understanding as a whole.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • James Hanley
  • 16-04-2019

too dry and too much data presented

To dry and too much detailed data presented throughout the book. It could have been about half as long and still got the same point across.

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  • David Geeraerts
  • 18-06-2018

Inequality is inevitable.

Inequality can not be laid at the feet of capitalism.
The four horseman of the past are not desired for the future.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Ras
  • 28-11-2017

Looked very promising but then disappointing

This book has some interesting contents scattered across the book. For instance, well-known major historical incidences, like wars, revolutions, government reforms, etc are occasionally narrated with interesting stories. However, the book is rather boring as it mainly involves enumeration of one statistics after another. Gini coefficient was mentioned perhaps thousand times! Although, the thesis of the book impressive (wars, certain types of viloence epidemics as temporary levellers of inequality), it is covered in a such dull way that as if it is a report for policy makers in a parliament. In that respect, I got really bored. That was a very promising book for me but in the end I looked forward to finish it and start another book!

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Yeh C.
  • 18-01-2019

Takes a grim view of inequality

Throughout history, inequality is only compacted by massive violent shocks, such as state collapse, epidemics, revolutions and mass mobilisation warfare, and the author gives the few examples throughout history where this happened. The author also looks at other factors that can compact inequality such as civil wars and policy decisions, and concludes these does not reduce inequality in the long run.

Overall the outlook on reducing inequality in our current age is pretty grim, as the four horsemen is the apocalypse are no longer applicable. An easy read for anyone interested

1 of 1 people found this review helpful