Economic Inequality in Preindustrial Times: Europe and beyond
- Journal of Economic Literature (Forthcoming)
Recent literature has reconstructed estimates of wealth and income inequality for a range of preindustrial, mostly European, societies covering Medieval and early modern times, occasionally reaching back to Antiquity and even prehistory. These estimates have radically improved our knowledge of distributive dynamics in the past. It now seems clear that in the period ca. 1300–1800, inequality of both income and wealth grew almost monotonically almost everywhere in Europe, with the exception of the century-long phase of inequality decline triggered by the Black Death of 1347–52. Regarding the causes of inequality growth, recent literature ruled out economic growth as the main one. Other possible factors include population growth (also as mediated by inheritance systems) and especially regressive fiscal institutions (also as connected to the unequal distribution of political power). The recently proposed theoretical framework of the inequality possibility frontier (IPF) lends a better understanding of the implications of the reconstructed trends. This article concludes by showing how connecting preindustrial trends to modern ones changes our perception of long-term inequality altogether.