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Piketty's Latest Charge

By offering a comprehensive history of "inequality regimes" around the world, French economist Thomas Piketty offers a deeply informative and rewarding overview of one of today's most pressing economic issues. But his own historical narrative suggests that his vision of global participatory socialism is a non-starter.

NEW YORK – French economist Thomas Piketty’s latest doorstop tome tries to fuse two distinct research efforts. The first is a history of inequality since around 1700, with occasional excursions into earlier periods. Upon reaching the nineteenth century and the industrial era, the analysis deepens and grows more detailed, taking us up to the present. Unlike Piketty’s previous opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which focused on the United States and just a few European countries, Capital and Ideology expands the scope to cover India, China, Brazil, and much of the postcolonial world.

The book’s second major objective is to provide a blueprint for “participatory socialism” at the global level. Piketty envisions a world in which the only inequality is “just inequality.” The latter includes income and wealth differences that “are the result of different aspirations and distinct life choices or permit improvement of the standard of living and expansion of the opportunities available to the disadvantaged.” In other words, permissible inequality should be determined on a Rawlsian basis, which allows for differences of position so long as they benefit the least well off in society.

These two overarching themes and associated research programs are not organically connected. Nothing resembling Piketty’s vision for global participatory socialism has developed during the 250-year history of “inequality regimes” that constitutes the bulk of the book. Not even the heyday of Western social democracy (1930-80) came close to what Piketty has in mind. In today’s political climate, moving our hyper-capitalist, nationalist, and identitarian societies toward Piketty’s ideal would require nothing short of a global revolution.