The insights in this masterful case against inequality resonate as powerfully today as they did nearly a century ago.
Back in the 1930s, a University of Chicago project set out to list the “72 Great Books of Western Civilization.” Only one book by an author then living made the cut.
That one book, The Acquisitive Society by the British academic R. H. Tawney, seldom gets much attention today. A shame. This slim volume, published in 1920, may just be the finest book on economic inequality ever written. In these Great Recession times, Tawney’s masterpiece merits a second look.
Readers, to their surprise, won’t find many numbers in The Acquisitive Society. This may be a book about inequality, but Tawney doesn’t dwell on statistics about income distribution. He didn’t have to. In his day, unlike ours, no one denied inequality — or tried to obscure it.
The Acquisitive Society offers, instead of statistics, a clear focus on the enormous price societies pay when they tolerate concentrated wealth. Such wealth, Tawney argues, thoroughly distorts a nation’s basic economic decisions.
A single massive income, he explains, exerts as powerful a marketplace demand as hundreds of smaller incomes that add up to the same total. This single massive income “diverts energy from the creation of wealth to the multiplication of luxuries, so that, for example, while one-tenth of the people of England are overcrowded, a considerable part of them are engaged, not in supplying that deficiency, but in making rich men’s hotels, luxurious yachts, and motorcars.”
These articles for the rich, Tawney contends, amount to waste pure and simple, a waste that thrives whenever wealth concentrates.
“As long as a minority has so large an income that part of it, if spent at all, must be spent on trivialities,” he notes, “so long will part of the human energy and mechanical equipment of the nation be diverted from serious work, which enriches it, to making trivialities, which impoverishes it.”
In Tawney’s day, just as in ours, powerful figures in society self-righteously lectured militant workers who dared to disrupt “production.” Tawney advances a suggestion we might do well today to heed.
If the powers that be, he notes, “desire that more wealth, not more waste, should be produced, the simplest way in which they can achieve their aim is to transfer to the public their whole incomes over (say) £1,000 a year, in order that it may be spent in setting to work, not gardeners, chauffeurs, domestic servants and shopkeepers in the West End of London, but builders, mechanics and teachers.”
Tawney, in effect, was proposing an income limit for British society. He took no intellectual credit for this suggestion. In earlier centuries, Tawney noted, William Cecil, a nobleman outraged by the displacement of tenant farmers by their landlords, had called for a “pecuniary maximum to the property” any landowner could legally hold.
Limits on economic power made sense to Tawney. They still make sense today.
.— Sam Pizzigati, editor, Too Much, an online weekly on excess and inequality.