Equality – what is it good for?

Modern society is history's most equal. But progress has not been linear – or easy to calculate.
Civil disorder arising from animosity between university undergraduates and towns people (town v gown) as described in a Charles Dickens novel. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images
Civil disorder arising from animosity between university undergraduates and towns people (town v gown) as described in a Charles Dickens novel. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is when was society most equal? Although it is a vague question it is also an interesting one because, like a single spark setting light to a firework, it raises several much more dazzling questions.

First, what do we mean by equality? While people may be referring to wealth or income, it is just as likely these days they are referring to equal rights or equality of opportunity. In the Middle Ages the lord of a manor could forbid his tenants from leaving his land and even insist that they only marry amongst each other: does such a lack of freedom contribute to an assessment of ‘equality’? If so, how should it be accounted for? On top of that, to what extent do all the various forms of discrimination enter the debate? Are they merely aberrations – the symptoms of individual prejudices – for which wider society cannot be held accountable? Or are we talking about all forms of perceived inequality, including personal experience as well as objective truth? 

Despite the complexity of the equality question, it has always seemed to me that the answer is simple. In the British context, society has been most equal in the modern period, or, to be specific, in the period after the Equal Pay Act of 1970. As just over half the population is female, it is worth beginning with the fact that until relatively recent times, women of all classes were subject to overt and systematic sexual discrimination. With regard to political equality, many British women did not have the vote until 1928 and none did before 1918. As for the equality of opportunity, women in the UK could not receive a university or a medical education until the 1870s. Married women could not control property in their own name until 1882. They could not get a divorce until 1857 and husbands were allowed to beat their wives with impunity until 1891. Incredibly, it was only in 1991 that it was made illegal for a man to rape his wife. Although women are still paid less on average than men, and are arguably still exploited and discriminated against, British women are more equal to men in the twenty-first century than they have ever been in history. 

You can say something similar for every traditionally disadvantaged group in society. Whether you are non-white, nonconformist, a member of a non-Christian religion, gay, working class or disabled, society has gone through a sequence of self-examinations and changes that have gradually permitted greater political equality, greater rights and less pay inequality for all these groups. Prejudices still abound, of course, and equality of opportunity is still a long way off, but the general trend over the last two hundred years has been towards less inequality and fewer prejudices. 

When you add income into the mix, the question becomes more complicated – not because it contradicts the direction of travel laid out above but because it distorts it. Not all inequalities are of equal weight and, historically, most forms took second place to the most pressing need of all, which was the need to obtain the necessities of life: food, drink, shelter, clothing and warmth. Women in families that suffered from extreme inequalities of wealth often had to subject themselves to greater indignities just to put food on the table. The magistrate and statistician Patrick Colquhoun estimated that in the 1790s one in five women in London was living off ‘immoral earnings’ (mainly prostitution, theft and selling stolen goods). Most such women were naturally less vocal in campaigning for the equality of the sexes or political representation, being preoccupied with their own and their children’s survival. 

You might conclude that the ever-increasing demand for more forms of equality over the last two hundred years is an indicator that money has gradually become less of an over-riding need. That is no doubt true of the poorest sectors of society, especially when we compare our society now with that of 1790-1850. Malthus outlined in his famous Essay on Population (1798) how, as the population was growing larger, so the poor were becoming poorer. More people were coming into the world with nothing to sell but their labour, but the increasing numbers of labourers competing for work had the effect of driving wages down, allowing business owners to make greater profits, further dividing the rich and poor. In short, the Industrial Revolution generated inequality on an industrial scale. Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that we can claim to be more equal than we were in 1800. It would be shame on us if we could not.

The question therefore is not so much whether things have improved since the early nineteenth century – they have – but whether that nadir was exceptional. Is there a danger of us being complacent in pointing to the last two hundred years’ progress (for want of a better word) when in reality it is not progress so much as a recovery from extreme levels of inequality created in the course of industrialisation? 

Consider another form of inequality: life expectancy at birth. In most periods of history, the poor can expect to live 85-90 per cent as long as the well-heeled. The evidence of bones from medieval cemeteries suggests that peasants could expect to live to age thirty compared to thirty-five for their manorial lords (86 per cent). The same ratio is noticeable for groups in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The modern world also conforms to this general rule. According to data from the Office for National Statistics, between 2015-17 life expectancy of men living in the most deprived areas in England was 74 years, compared with 83.3 years in the least deprived areas (89 per cent). However, two official reports, published in 1844 and 1845, tell a very different story. In London, if you were born into a wealthy family, life expectancy at birth was 44; if you were born into a labourer’s family, it was 22. This is markedly outside the norm: less than 50 per cent of the life expectancy of the better-off. In the industrial north, where living conditions were worse, there was an even greater discrepancy. The average working-class person in Liverpool was buried at the age of sixteen at a time when the national average was above 40 and the rich could expect to live well beyond that. Given that life expectancy at birth is, in essence, a summing up of all the disadvantages suffered by members of a community over the course of their lives – from before birth, even – it seems the Industrial Revolution was indeed anomalous in its extreme levels of inequality. 

Does that mean there was less income inequality at an earlier date, before the ravages of industrialisation turned human reproduction into a production line of birth and early death? That is a harder question to answer. One way in which economic historians approach it is to measure how much of the total income was enjoyed by a small segment, normally the wealthiest 1 per cent or 10 per cent in society. Another method is to compare the income of the richest 1 per cent to that of the least-wealthy 50 per cent. For example, in 1688, the upper classes were roughly 26 times as well off as the poorest 50 per cent, a figure comparable to the situation in 1812. For a modern comparison, in 2017-18 the highest-earning 1 per cent of families had an average household income less than seven times greater than the poorest 50 per cent.

The problem with this sort of metric is that is primarily concerned with the rich. This misses the fundamental point about income inequality: the rich do not suffer from it. Demonstrating the relative poverty of half the population in relation to the wealthy does not reveal the most deprived groups, who had no hope of making ends meet. 

Another popular method of measuring income inequality is to calculate the Gini coefficient for a society. This is a number between 0 and 1 that measures the disparity between income distribution and complete equality. If the society under study enjoyed total income equality, it would have a Gini coefficient of 0; if one person had all the income and no one else any, it would be 1.

Various economists have attempted to work out historical Gini coefficients using English historical datasets, most recently Robert C. Allen, who calculated them for 1688, 1759, 1798, 1846 and 1867 (Economic History Review, 2019). His conclusion was that in 1688 and 1759 the figure was consistently high – 0.53 and 0.54 – and rose still higher to 0.6 in 1798. It remained high at 0.58 until at least 1846 then fell to 0.48 by 1867. It stayed around this level until the time of the First World War, when it dropped again, to about 0.3. It now stands at 0.35 (compared to 0.31 for Europe as a whole).

Unfortunately, the problem with this approach is that it reduces everything to numbers – and very generalised numbers at that. The difference between 0.54 and 0.58 in the national Gini coefficients of 1759 and 1846 does not sound particularly significant, but over those years life expectancy at birth in Preston dropped from 31 to eighteen. In the 1830s, life expectancy at birth sank to just thirteen in the poorest streets of Ashton-under-Lyne: infant mortality, occupational health problems, poor living conditions and general deprivation all played their respective parts. Those who had only their labour to sell were forced into occupations that may briefly have paid them a living wage but which, in a few short years, killed them. There were, of course, always more workers to take their place, so income inequality statistics derived using the wealthy as a benchmark conceal rather than reveal the truth.

To explore the question of how this level of inequality arose, consider which of the following two discreet theoretical societies is the more equal. 

·      Society A, in which the richest 1 per cent all have incomes 100 times as great as everyone else, who all earn the same amount. 

·      Society B, in which the richest 1 per cent have incomes 100 times as great as the poorest 1 per cent and the remaining 98 per cent are evenly distributed between them. So, if those in the poorest centile earn £x and the second-poorest earn £2x, the richest 1 per cent earn £100x, the second-richest 1 per cent earn £99x, the third-richest 1 per cent £98x and so on. 

Most people respond that Society A is the more unequal of the two. A small minority are 100 times richer than everyone else, whereas in Society B, incomes appear more evenly distributed: the richest people are only 100 times richer than the very poorest members of society. Also, in Society A, the richest 10 per cent have 54.8 per cent of all the income whereas in Society B, the richest 10 per cent only have 18.9 per cent. The Gini coefficient of Society A is higher too, 0.49 compared to 0.33. Whichever method you use to assess the level of inequality in these two societies, A comes out as the more unequal.  

The problem with this reckoning is that it is distorted by our obsession with wealth. We place a disproportionate emphasis on the 1 per cent who are exceptional and regard the 99 per cent who are otherwise equal as less important. Therefore it is worth looking at these two societies in a different way, in terms of what they represent. 

Society A is a crude model of a medieval manor. The feudal lord has the large income, his peasants the small ones. As every peasant has the same amount of money, every object for sale is equally affordable. There is no economic underclass: everyone earns more than half of the average income, albeit only just. When it comes to marriages, there are no social barriers as to which peasants’ sons and daughters can marry each other: they are all social equals. Most importantly, the manorial lord has to take everyone’s interests equally into account as they are all equal contributors to the prosperity of the manor, which supports him as well as them. 

Society B is a crude model of a post-industrial society that is equally distributed between a range of classes. Its economic elite is far larger than Society A but a quarter of the population earns less than half the average income, thus creating an underclass which, because of the greater purchasing power of the economic elite, is significantly disadvantaged. People in this society are not social equals. When it comes to governing such a society, it is easy for the wealthiest members to prioritise their own interests and refuse to accept any responsibilities to the poor. Indeed, they may feel it essential to prevent the poor from bettering themselves or marrying outside their class, otherwise they might find themselves being supplanted and falling down the economic hierarchy.

Obviously, these models are extremes and consequently unrealistic in a number of respects. Not all the peasants were equal in a feudal society; similarly, the idea that there could be even numbers distributed across the entire spectrum of income is a profound distortion. British society has always been somewhere between the two. But even if Society A were reconfigured to show a degree of income variation among the peasantry, and even if Society B reflected the pyramid of wealth, the general observations would remain true. While the peasants in Society A are no doubt envious of the lord, and maybe even frightened of him, no one is particularly worse off than his peers. In Society B, however, a significant portion of the population is comparatively deprived. What is more, in moving from Society A to Society B, the middle-income bands of Society B have to emerge from the peasantry. The model suggests that it is the very development of a middle class that stratifies the peasantry, creating an underclass. 

This is not to suggest that Society A is any better than Society B. Feudalism was open to tyranny, with no checks or balances to hold a lord to account except the king. Historically, the feudal peasantry was so precariously positioned that famines often caused mass mortality. For Society A to remain stable, there would have to be little or no ability for self-betterment. But the comparison of the two extremes allows us to understand how the income inequality of the Industrial Revolution was not the sudden result of industrialisation per se but of a centuries-long process of the stratification of the lower classes – the results of centuries of self-betterment. British society (like all other societies throughout Europe) saw its medieval feudal hierarchy gradually evolve into one that was still headed by a land-owning upper class but which included ranks of people in the middle, from industrialists and bankers down to the ordinary workers, and then the underclass below the ordinary workers: the unemployed, the homeless and the destitute. 

The stages by which this took place are well known to historians. Following a slight rise of average temperature due to climate change around the eleventh century, farms were more productive and society more stable, resulting in agricultural surpluses and a general shift from subsistence farming to a market economy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Black Death in the fourteenth century hammered the last nails into the coffin of feudalism and freed up capital and labour for potential merchants to develop. The rise of literacy in the sixteenth century transformed the world of government at both local and national level, creating opportunities in law and similar professions for the middle classes.

At the same time, urbanisation and overseas trade allowed the merchant-businessmen of the day to make fortunes. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the acceleration of the enclosure movement and the end of communal farming saw thousands of latter-day peasants deprived of the modest amounts of farmland that had supported their families for centuries, with the consequence that they were left with nothing to sell but their labour. The Agricultural Revolution of the eighteenth century may have made more food available and thus sustained a larger population, but it did not provide extra land, work or housing, and so a burgeoning workforce had to compete for these things. With wages low, with men and women clamouring for work, and with a maritime position ideal for exporting to the rest of the world, industrialisation took off. Vast fortunes were made. But at the same time an underclass was developing, and always had been developing, composed of those who could not compete. 

It is, of course, entirely understandable why members of a feudal hierarchy should wish to take advantage of new opportunities to improve their status and wealth. But in doing so, they and their successors created a number of social problems. In England and Wales, the Old Poor Law established in 1597 to stop the very poor from starving to death proved to be an effective sticking plaster, but it could not eliminate the root cause of the income inequality developing at that time. Nor did its protagonists intend it to. Although the sixteenth century was a time of revolution in many respects – almost all of the new stately homes in Elizabeth I’s reign were built for lawyers and similar self-made men, for example – their advancement only stratified the class system even more. By the end of Elizabeth’s reign, vagrancy and poverty were  social problems throughout England. 

To answer the question, therefore, of whether we have always been progressing towards equality, with regard to incomes, the answer has to be no. Relative poverty is a social by-product of prosperity, and British society – indeed Western society as a whole – has always put a higher value on encouraging prosperity than preventing poverty. The resulting economic hardships in the period 1500-1800 allowed not only the development of an underclass but also the toleration of inequalities of identity, such as sex, sexuality, race, class and religion, and stricter class divisions. For this reason, we should not be too hasty in applauding ourselves for the great strides made towards reversing the inequalities of identity over the last two hundred years. They may seem unprecedented and thus worthy of being deemed genuine progress towards a more inclusive society, but they are all elements of a recovery from an unprecedented nadir.

Ian Mortimer

Dr Ian Mortimer is an independent historian best known as the author of the four Time Traveller's Guides - to medieval and Elizabethan England and Restoration and Regency Britain. A Fellow of both the Royal Historical Society and the Society of Antiquaries, he won the Royal Historical Society's Alexander Prize in 2004 for his work on the social history of medicine. He has subsequently published peer-reviewed articles in the scholarly press on aspects of English history for every century from the twelfth to the twentieth. He also writes in other genres: his timeslip novel, The Outcasts of Time, won the 2018 Winston Graham Prize for historical fiction. He lives on the edge of Dartmoor, in southwest England.

Subscribe to Engelsberg Ideas

Receive the Engelsberg Ideas weekly email from our editorial team.

By subscribing, you consent to us contacting you by email. You may unsubscribe at any time, and we’ll keep your personal data safe in accordance with our privacy policy.