Origins of inequality include chance
December 22, 2017 4:00 PM   Subscribe

Inequality in nature and society is a recent paper by Scheffer, van Bavel, van de Leemput, and van Nes in the journal PNAS that argues that both natural and economic inequality can arise by chance:
Inequality is one of the main drivers of social tension. We show striking similarities between patterns of inequality between species abundances in nature and wealth in society. We demonstrate that in the absence of equalizing forces, such large inequality will arise from chance alone. While natural enemies have an equalizing effect in nature, inequality in societies can be suppressed by wealth-equalizing institutions. However, over the past millennium, such institutions have been weakened during periods of societal upscaling. Our analysis suggests that due to the very same mathematical principle that rules natural communities (indeed, a “law of nature”) extreme wealth inequality is inevitable in a globalizing world unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions are installed on a global scale.
The authors use a mathematical model to show that when gains or losses are multiplicative (as occurs in population growth or interest-earning investments), random fluctuations are enough to produce high levels of inequality. The work shows how inequality arises naturally, and wealth-distributing mechanisms like progressive taxation are necessary to avoid exterme inequality.

Press release.
posted by medusa (7 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I found this paper interesting as a strong counter-argument to the idea that wealth must reflect inherent superiority of the rich.
posted by medusa at 4:02 PM on December 22, 2017 [6 favorites]

And if inequality can arise by chance, we must fight all the harder to mitigate its effects.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:35 PM on December 22, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is a very interesting article, thanks! I've been thinking lately about the ratchet effect in power and wealth (as Jesus and Billie Holiday said, "Them's that got shall get / Them's that not shall lose"), and this does a great job of showing just how powerful the effect is. It has got me thinking about the Potlatch, and the Mandate of Heaven, and the Year of Jubilee, and inheritance taxes, and regulatory capture, and rainfall patterns, and... just... all sorts of things. The mention of the 12th to 14th centuries makes me think of one of the most interesting/frightening graphs I've ever seen, which I built an FPP around.

I know that I should be cautious about mathematical models which seek to Explain Everything about society and biology, but I find this one exciting. I'd love to know what's wrong with it.
posted by clawsoon at 8:06 PM on December 22, 2017

Sociobiology is a helluva drug.
posted by No Robots at 8:33 PM on December 22, 2017

Rosling [] is descriptive, academic study of global increases in longevity and income. This supposes mechanism necessary to address proportions it does not define in terms of a future it cannot define.
posted by lazycomputerkids at 2:16 AM on December 23, 2017

Quantitatively, the paper seems vacuous or at least unsurprising to me. And I agree with the reactions of medusa and Faint of Butt, but you just know there's some Randian asshole out there thinking about writing his blog post titled "Proof That Inequality Is Natural."
posted by mubba at 3:06 PM on December 23, 2017

Here is a simple game.

Start with one coin.

Each turn, flip one coin. If it is heads, get another coin. If it is tails, discard the coin.

The game ends when there are no coins left.

The game will end, however it does not have a finite average running time.
posted by pfh at 4:22 PM on December 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

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