Inequality /=> Revolt

Famous historical revolutions were not consistently caused by high or rising income inequality:

[French income] inequality during the eighteenth century was large but decreased during the revolutionary period (1790-1815). … When industrialisation began about 1830, inequality increased until sometime in the 1860s. (more)

In 1904, on the eve of military defeat and the 1905 Revolution, Russian income inequality was middling by the standards of that era, and less severe than inequality has become today in such countries as China, the United States, and Russia itself. (more)

In 1774 the American colonies had average incomes exceeding those of the Mother Country, even when slave households are included in the aggregate. … American colonists had much more equal incomes than did households in England and Wales around 1774. Indeed, New England and the Middle Colonies appear to have been more egalitarian than anywhere else in the measureable world. Income inequality rose dramatically between 1774 and 1860, especially in the South. (more)

So why do most people so confidently believe that revolutions were caused by high or rising inequality? I’d guess its because it feels like a nice way to affirm your support for the standard forager value of more equality.

Added 24Sept: OK, I see that the French data isn’t so relevant to my point.

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  • Daniel Yokomizo

    That shows data about successful revolutions. What about failed ones? Perhaps we have a correlation that successful revolutions thrive on low inequality (easier to unify the revolting population) and failed ones struggle due to high inequality (easier to co-opt the wealthier revolutionaries and easier for the poorer revolutionaries to not trust the wealthier ones). Also with more equality the difference in power between revolutionaries and status quo is smaller, improving the success of the revolution.

    • Sigivald

       I suppose that’s possible, but what ones might you have in mind?

      (For that matter, perhaps if inequality is super-dramatic revolutions never even have a chance to start?

      But that seems pretty unlikely, since you don’t need anything beyond subsistence [the minimal requirement of being alive and able to function] in order to storm the over-class and burn down their houses…)

      To comment on Mr. Hanson’s post, every time I see complaints about “inequality” at the social level, my wonder is “Why do you care about inequality, rather than the absolute conditions of the worst-off?”

      I suspect the answer is the same as suggested for the revolution context.

      • Nate

        To respond to the question, “Why do you care about inequality, rather than the absolute conditions of the worst-off?”

        Intellectually, economically, consciously (or however else you want to put it) we tend to assume that being “better off” makes people happy, or should make people happy.

        The exception is how we actually feel emotionally. We don’t much care how well we are doing, personally. Even if we sit down and tell ourselves we SHOULD feel good about having a roof over our head, three meals a day, and so on, emotionally we always want more. That’s because we are constantly comparing ourselves to other people around us.

        This makes sense from an evolutionary sense, because historically if our ancestors were surrounded by people with great wealth, there was not much of an excuse for you to not be just as successful (since success was much more based on environmental luck such as readily available food sources, low predators, good weather, etc.).

        No matter how much you tell people they should be “grateful for what they have,” we will always have an instinctive urge to compare ourselves to others in our immediate environment, and judge our success comparatively.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

        historically if our ancestors were surrounded by people with great wealth, there was not much of an excuse for you to not be just as successful

        By most accounts, our ancestors weren’t exposed to great wealth inequalities.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

       1905 Russia was a failed revolution.

  • John

    We all know that the data about inequality from all the time periods you mentioned is problematically derived, to put it mildly (I actually think bogus is the right word here).

    I am rather more interested about the measure for inequality you use in your assertions. Is it Gini or something else?

  • V_V

    So why do most people so confidently believe that revolutions were caused by high or rising inequality?

    Who are these “most people”? It doesn’t occur to me that it’s common knowledge that revolutions are caused by high or rising inequality.

    • Epstein’s Mother

      I agree.  I was always under the impression that the theory was that revolutions occur when things have been getting better, and then face a dramatic reversal.

      • ryanyin

        But none of the above were examples of reversals, much less dramatic ones. 

    • gwern0

       Watch pretty much any movie or show depicting the French Revolution. ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’

  • gwern0
  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen R. Diamond

    So why do most people so confidently believe that revolutions were caused by high or rising inequality?

    Because the French Revolution, the archetype for class-based revolt, did occur with high and rising inequality: “Let them eat cake.”

    (The 1790s, when inequality declined, followed the revolution, and I’d guess, was due to it–with the confiscation of the nobility’s estates and what not.)

    • Bob

      Plus it’s not like France lived in idyllic calm during the period of rising inequality from 1830 to the 1860s.  There would be another successful revolution in 1848, a coup in 1852, and lots of more minor incidents like the June rebellion in 1832.  

      Honestly it weirds me out that Hanson pointed out rising inequality in France over that time period, since it seems to be a counterexample to his point, not an example.    France had lots of violent, class-based social unrest from 1830-1860, and two violent changes in government!  

  • Curtadams

    Robin, what happened to your self-checking ability? To support a claim that revolutions aren’t caused by inequality you cite three examples. In the French example you point out the inequality decreased *after* the revolution (which started in 1989) which doesn’t directly address the issue, and if anything, opposes your point. 

    The American Revolution wasn’t a revolution in the sense discussed here – the populace didn’t overthrow the local government. Name notwithstanding, it is more properly termed a rebellion, in which the populace *and* the local government overthrew the control of a distant ruler. So that datapoint is totally irrelevant to your point.

    So that leaves us with one datapoint actually addressing your claim, that of the Russian Revolution of 1905, where an attempted revolution occurred in a country of average inequality. That is at least support, but it’s very weak tea. First, it’s only one datapoint, and all it really says is that inequality isn’t the *only* reason for revolution, which nobody claims anyway.

    So to back up a claim, you cite three specific examples, one weakly against your point, one weakly for, and one irrelevant. This is not the way to back up a claim!

    Out of curiosity, why did you pick the historical footnote Russian Revolution of 1905 and not the two highly momentous Russian Revolutions of 1917?

    • Curtadams

      argh, “started in 1789″

  • Boreddude001

    American revolution was revolt against the tyranny. Russian revolution was a communist revolution. 

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Most important social movement research findings: “Deprivation theory is wrong, social construction is right. “Objective” conditions don’t predict the rise of movements, but problem construction.”

  • Pingback: Browsing Catharsis – 09.23.12 « Increasing Marginal Utility

  • Fezziwig

    In addition to the worthy criticisms already made, I think you’re doing this analysis backward.  If we want to determine whether inequality leads to revolution, we should take the set of highly inequal societies over history and see how many of them experienced revolts.

  • Carl Shulman


    OK, I see that the French data isn’t so relevant to my point.”

    Tails I win, Heads let’s call it a draw? It’s relevant evidence *against* your point, no?

    • Robin Hanson

      The early largeness is against, but the later change is irrelevant.