Evolution of Inequality Overview

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Evolution of Inequality

Differences among people (and among peoples) in talents, strength, and other capacities are seemingly minor by comparison with the often-observed vast and historically persistent between-group and individual differences in economic fortunes, reproductive success, status, rights, and power. The same may be said of many non-human primates and other animals. What processes translate seemingly small differences in individual capacities into social hierarchies characterized by large and persistent differences in access to valued resources and power over others? And, what accounts for the dramatic differences in the degree of social hierarchy and economic inequality that have been observed across time and space?

The structures of social interactions associated with these inequalities exhibit substantial differences across societies and through time. Included are unequal bargaining power in competitive markets, the use of state power to advance group interests, bonded labor and other forms of coercive resource transfers, racial and ethnic exclusion, hierarchically ordered or assortative mating systems and other forms of positive assortation, and many others. Do these processes share a common causal structure? Can the evolutionary success of hierarchically ordered societies in the past 10 millennia be traced to a common underlying dynamic?

Analogously, what accounts for the limited inequality and muted hierarchy observed in many societies? The proximate causal processes that reduce inequality in these societies are seemingly unrelated across time and among different societies. For example reproductive leveling, the formation of coalitions of subordinates to limit the power of dominants, the sharing of some foods and information and other forms of within-group variance reduction were probably common among our forager-ancestors as they are among foragers in the ethnographic and historical record. But these processes appear to have little in common with the extension of formal political rights to all citizens and the enlargement of these rights to claim resources, as in modern-day social democracies. Do these processes have common elements? Why have such egalitarian societies emerged and persisted over long periods?

Answering these questions requires an account of the dynamics of hierarchical structures. What accounts for major transitions between economically egalitarian and more unequal social orders such as occurred with the emergence of possession-based property rights and private storage of wealth associated with the domestication of plants and animals, or with the demise of Communist-ruled societies in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, or the market reform of the Chinese economy?

Correspondingly, are there common processes underlying movement toward more equal outcomes such as the dramatic reduction in the income shares of the very rich during of the 20th century in countries as diverse as the U.S., Japan India, Germany, France, and the UK . Are the causes underlying these trends also at work in the mid- to late-20th century land reforms in Taiwan, Korea, and West Bengal? Do these episodes have anything in common with the processes that have on occasion reined in the political, juridical, social, and sexual privileges associated with wealth? Examples include the emergence of jury trial in some European judicial systems, rights to privacy and civil liberties, the accountability of political leaders to inclusive electorates, and what has been called "the great social achievement of the early Middle Ages” in Europe, namely “the imposition of the same rules of sexual and domestic conduct on both rich and poor."