Inequality comes in waves. The question is when this one will break.
In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, at the age of twenty-five, was sent by France’s Ministry of Justice to study the American penal system. He spent ten months in the United States, dutifully visiting prisons and meeting hundreds of people, including President Andrew Jackson and his predecessor, John Quincy Adams. On his return to France, he wrote a book about his observations, “Democracy in America,” the first volume of which was published in 1835. Many of the observations have weathered well (he noted, for instance, how American individualism coexisted with conformism). Others have not. For example, Tocqueville, who was the youngest son of a count, was deeply impressed by how equal the economic conditions in the United States were.
It was, at the time, an accurate assessment. The United States was the world’s most egalitarian society. Wages in the young nation were higher than in Europe, and land in the West was abundant and cheap. There were rich people, but they weren’t super-rich, like European aristocrats. According to “Unequal Gains: American Growth and Inequality Since 1700,” by the economic historians Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, the share of national income going to the richest one per cent of the population was more than twenty per cent in Britain but below ten per cent in America. The prevailing ideology of the country favored equality (though, to be sure, only for whites); Americans were proud that there was a relatively small gap between rich and poor. “Can any condition of society be more desirable than this?” Thomas Jefferson bragged to a friend.
Today, the top one per cent in this country gets about twenty per cent of the income, similar to the distribution found across the Atlantic in Tocqueville’s day. How did the United States go from being the most egalitarian country in the West to being one of the most unequal? The course from there to here, it turns out, isn’t a straight line. During the past two centuries, inequality in America has been on something of a roller-coaster ride.
An early systematic attempt to chart the evolution of inequality in this country was undertaken by Simon Kuznets, at that time a professor at Johns Hopkins, who, in 1955, published what turned out to be a seminal paper, “Economic Growth and Income Inequality.” Drawing on years of assiduously collected data—for which he later won a Nobel Prize—he reached a surprising conclusion. Like most economists, he had assumed that the general trend, in a capitalist economy governed by private property, would be for the rich to get richer—for inequality to increase steadily over time. That had been true in the initial stages of industrialization, he found, but since then the United States, England, and Germany had experienced a narrowing of economic disparity. And, as more data about more countries became available, Kuznets found that in most advanced economies the poor were catching up with the rich. It was, he said, “a puzzle.”