Free exchange: All men are created unequal

INEQUALITY is one of the most controversial attributes of capitalism. Early in the industrial revolution stagnant wages and concentrated wealth led David Ricardo and Karl Marx to question capitalism’s sustainability. Twentieth-century economists lost interest in distributional issues amid the “Great Compression” that followed the second world war. But a modern surge in inequality has new economists wondering, as Marx and Ricardo did, which forces may be stopping the fruits of capitalism from being more widely distributed.“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics, is an authoritative guide to the question. Mr Piketty’s book, which was published in French in 2013 and will be released in English in March 2014, self-consciously builds on the work of 19th-century thinkers; his title is an allusion to Marx’s magnum opus. But he possesses an advantage they lacked: two centuries’ worth of hard data.The book suggests that some 20th-century conventional wisdom was badly wrong. Inequality does not appear to ebb as economies mature, as Simon Kuznets, a Nobel-winning economist, argued in the 1950s. Neither should we expect the share of income flowing to capital to stay roughly constant over time: what another economist, Nicholas Kaldor, labelled a key fact of economic growth. Mr Piketty argues there is no reason to think that…

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