Social Inequality through the Ages

November 4, 2007

Have you ever wondered how today’s social conditions compare to those during, let’s say, the British Industrial Revolution? Of course you have.
Branko Milanovic of the World Bank, Peter H. Lindert of UC Davis, and Jeffrey G. Williamson of Harvard came out with a new way of measuring social inequality that can do just that.

Because there is no reliable income data for time periods that preceded the industrial revolution, the scholars infer the inequalities in 14 different “ancient” societies using social tables (where various social classes are ranked from the richest to the poorest with their estimated population shares and average incomes, the report states).

Their calculations show that today in the U.S. we enjoy more equality than 1801 England, but less than in Rome during the last years of the Roman Empire.

Here are two tables to compare (lower GINI means lower social inequality):

1) societies then and now

Country/Territory, year GINI
China 1880 ███████████
China 2002 ██████████████████████
Roman Empire 14 ██████████████████
Italy 2000 ██████████████████
Byzantium 1000 ████████████████████
Turkey 2003 █████████████████████
British India 1947 ████████████████████████
India 2000 ████████████████
England/ Wales 1801 █████████████████████████
United Kingdom 1999 ██████████████████
Holand 1732 ███████████████████████████████
Netherlands 2005 ███████████████

2) ancient societies and various modern countries

Country/Territory, year GINI
Denmark 2002 ███████████
China 1880 ███████████
Roman Empire 14 ██████████████████
Morocco 2005 ████████████████████
Byzantium 1000 ████████████████████
United States 2004 ██████████████████████
British India 1947 ████████████████████████
Thailand 2002 █████████████████████████
England/ Wales 1801 █████████████████████████
Brazil 2005 ████████████████████████████
Holand 1732 ███████████████████████████████
Namibia 2003 ███████████████████████████████████

(Modern day data was acquired from the CIA World Fact Book.)

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