Egalitarianism as the Economic Revolution of the 20th Cy

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Willam Waters and Edward O'Boyle, introducing Robert Fogel:

Robert Fogel's "work deals with whole populations becoming better off and with the reduction in the differences between the rich and poor [Fogel 1991, pp. 33-71]. He believes that egalitarianism (the movement to more equality of economic welfare) is the economic revolution of the twentieth century. Indeed, this is an area of great interest for social economists. He prefaces an article with a quote from another University of Chicago Nobel Prize winner, T. W. Schultz, that clearly reflects his attitude about the nature of the science of economics. “Most of the people in the world are poor, so if we knew the economics of being poor we would know much of the economics that really matters” [Fogel 1992, p. 243]. There are four measures of the extent of the inequality that was removed. Three are biomedical: life expectation, height and body mass index. (BMI is weight per height). The fourth is the Gini ratio that tracks changes in income inequality. Height and BMI are predictors of risk of disease and a short life. For example, Americans experienced better health earlier than Europeans and so achieved modern heights by the 1750s. The English reached these heights only after 1825. The reasons that American diets were richer in protein than European diets and population density was lower and so less disease. All of the four measures show the twentieth century to be a time when the rich and the poor in the developed countries became considerably more equal. Data on income distribution show that while the rich got richer, the poor came closer to them. Life expectancy began to rise among the poor in the 1790s after the Industrial Revolution in England but the improvement was slight and there were decisive reversals up until the twentieth century. Rapid increases in development and income per capita were achieved from 1775 to 1875 but there was little overall improvement in health as measured by height, BMI or longevity. Fogel finds this puzzling.

The process of modernization was a mixed blessing for those who lived through it. It brought such benefits as a leap forward in scientific knowledge, remarkable technological innovations in agriculture, transportation, and marked gains in labor productivity. Yet, negative aspects tempered the benefits.

The negatives were brought about by:

(a) rapid urbanization (death rates rose in cities of more than 50,000);

(b) increased mobility, for example, the spread of cholera in 1849-50 and malaria following the Civil War in the United States;11 (c) in some places populations increases greater than the food supply; and

(d) more inequitable income distribution. Moreover, there were negative factors responsible for “stunting” children under the age of three: namely, infections of pregnant women, contaminated food, opiates used to pacify infants and diets poor in protein.

There were some advances in life expectancy in England, France, the United States and elsewhere between 1830 and 1900, but they were surprisingly small and there were reversals among lower income people. The gains from 1890 to 1955, on the other hand, were remarkable. Chronic malnutrition was almost eliminated. There were advances in public health (water purification and disease control), improvement in housing, reduction in toxic substances, such as drugs and leads, and innovations in medical technology. Some other changes that contributed to the twentieth century revolution was progressive tax programs transferring income from rich to poor. Moreover, an extremely important factor was the subsidization of education. Primary and secondary education was made compulsory and free. In the United States subsidies were extended by the establishment of state and city universities. And then in 1944 came the GI bill financing higher education for eight million American veterans of World War II.

In a period that has been termed the Golden Age of the American economy salaries of skilled and professionals greatly increased by more that the increases in per capita income. An effect of this subsidization of education was a more equitable distribution of income. According to Fogel, for purposes of equity, this strategy of subsidization of education should be continued and increased. This is his favored policy recommendation. There was more of course. Public health programs greatly reduced homelessness and beggary. The problem in Europe in the nineteenth century and before was chronic malnutrition. Twenty percent of the population did not have sufficient calories and protein to supply the energy to work. The best that the poorest ten percent could do was stroll a few hours a day begging. With better nutrition came the physical stamina to do a day’s work. Moreover, and this was most noticeable in the United States, private philanthropy was encouraged by the tax laws. There is a religious variable in Fogel’s analysis of the great egalitarian movement. For centuries religiosity influenced policy in the United States and Europe.

There were three Great Awakenings in religiosity that impacted politically and socially according to the nature of the specific revivals:

(a) predestination remained throughout the eighteenth century, continuing up to the early nineteenth, with influence upon the American Revolution and British corruption;

(b) in the middle of the nineteenth century there appeared an awakening, stressing the presence of saving grace to strengthen one in the struggle against sin, that helped abolish slavery in the United States; and

(c) in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century there occurred an awakening that influenced policy to eradicate social sin by attacking corrupt big business and the rich. The last, from about 1890 to 1970, is very relevant to Fogel’s thesis that the twentieth century is the century of egalitarianism for it helped the disadvantaged by such actions as opening medical clinics in poor sections of large cities and settlement houses to help the poor find work. The twentieth century movement meant a change in values and attitudes about social programs generally. The established Protestant religions became more socially minded and pushed for social economic intervention of government. The Catholic Church joined the Protestants, in fact, was a leader in the revolution, with social encyclicals beginning in 1891, that called for government support of workers, a full socialization program that continues to this day with a succession of encyclicals emphasizing the dignity of the person in the workplace and the right of all to a just wage with a component of savings therein. Fogel is very much afraid that a new awakening that had its origin in the 1960s will greatly diminish the social fervor that has accomplished so much through organized religion."


More information

  • Fogel, Robert W. (1991). “The Conquest of High Mortality and Hunger in Europe and America: Timing and Mechanisms,” in Favorites of Fortune: Technology, Growth and Economic Development Since the Industrial Revolution, edited by Patrice Higonnet, David S. Landes and Henry Rosovsky, Cambridge MA: Harvard.
  • Fogel, Robert W. (1992). “Second Thoughts on the European Escape from Hunger: Famines, Malnutrition, and Mortality Rates,” in Nutrition and Poverty, by S. R. Osmani, Oxford: Clarendon Press