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Measuring Ancient Inequality

  • Jeffrey G. Williamson

    ()

    (Harvard University and NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH)

  • Branko Milanovic
  • Peter H. Lindert

Is inequality largely the result of the Industrial Revolution? Or, were pre-industrial incomes and life expectancies as unequal as they are today? For want of sufficient data, these questions have not yet been answered. This paper infers inequality for 14 ancient, pre-industrial societies using what are known as social tables, stretching from the Roman Empire 14 AD, to Byzantium in 1000, to England in 1688, to Nueva España around 1790, to China in 1880 and to British India in 1947. It applies two new concepts in making those assessments -- what we call the inequality possibility frontier and the inequality extraction ratio. Rather than simply offering measures of actual inequality, we compare the latter with the maximum feasible inequality (or surplus) that could have been extracted by the elite. The results, especially when compared with modern poor countries, give new insights in to the connection between inequality and economic development in the very long run.

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Paper provided by Association Française de Cliométrie (AFC) in its series Working Papers with number 08-06.

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Length: 86 pages
Date of creation: 2008
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:afc:wpaper:08-06
Contact details of provider: Web page: http://www.cliometrie.org

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  1. Deininger, Klaus & Squire, Lyn, 1996. "A New Data Set Measuring Income Inequality," World Bank Economic Review, World Bank Group, vol. 10(3), pages 565-91, September.
  2. Samuel H. Preston, 1980. "Causes and Consequences of Mortality Declines in Less Developed Countries during the Twentieth Century," NBER Chapters, in: Population and Economic Change in Developing Countries, pages 289-360 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. R. V. Jackson, 1994. "Inequality of incomes and lifespans in England since 1688," Economic History Review, Economic History Society, vol. 47(3), pages 508-524, 08.
  4. Gary S. Becker & Tomas J. Philipson & Rodrigo R. Soares, 2003. "The Quantity and Quality of Life and the Evolution of World Inequality," NBER Working Papers 9765, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  5. Paul Collier & Anke Hoeffler, 2004. "Greed and Grievance in Civil War," Development and Comp Systems 0409007, EconWPA.
  6. Lindert, Peter H. & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1982. "Revising England's social tables 1688-1812," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 19(4), pages 385-408, October.
  7. Branko Milanovic, 2006. "An Estimate Of Average Income And Inequality In Byzantium Around Year 1000," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 52(3), pages 449-470, 09.
  8. Goldsmith, Raymond W, 1984. "An Estimate of the Size and Structure of the National Product of the Early Roman Empire," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 30(3), pages 263-88, September.
  9. Thomas Piketty, 2005. "Top Income Shares in the Long Run: An Overview," Journal of the European Economic Association, MIT Press, vol. 3(2-3), pages 382-392, 04/05.
  10. Allen, Robert, 2001. "2000 Economic History Association Annual Meeting," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 61(02), pages 532-535, June.
  11. Kuznets, Simon, 1976. " Demographic Aspects of the Size Distribution of Income: An Exploratory Essay," Economic Development and Cultural Change, University of Chicago Press, vol. 25(1), pages 1-94, October.
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