Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Income and Wealth Inequality from the Stone Age to the Present

HISTORY 12N
CLASSICS 12N

Concerns about rising inequality in income and wealth are making headlines all over the world, from America and Europe to China. Yet current debates and policy proposals neglect the very long sweep of history and the lessons it may hold. This seminar traces the evolution of resource inequality from the Stone Age to the present. Only this long-term perspective can reveal the forces that drive inequality and allow us to address key questions: how long has economic inequality existed? When, how, and why has the gap between haves and haven-nots widened or shrunk over the course of history? Which factors have been the most effective in reducing inequality? What does the history of inequality suggest for the future? We are going to confront challenging arguments: that inequality has been closely tied up with overall economic and human development, and that in the long run, violent shocks such as war, revolution, and pestilence were the most effective equalizers of income and wealth. This class will help you appreciate contexts and complexities that are often obscured by partisan controversies and short-term perspectives. It provides rich historical background for a better understanding of one of the big problems of our time.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Walter Scheidel

"I am a historian who has worked on ancient social and economic history, demography, and the comparative world history of empires, labor regimes, and marriage. I have been offering courses in Classics and History at Stanford for 15 years, and I am part of the faculty team in charge of the sophomore core sequence of the Human Biology program. I grew up in Europe and came to Stanford via positions in Cambridge and Chicago, and also spent time teaching in Paris, New York and Abu Dhabi. I have written or edited 18 books, including a global history of income and wealth inequality, which has inspired this seminar. When I am not on campus I travel the world: my current score is 80 countries and counting."