If free markets promote themselves as the most effective and efficient way of creating and sharing prosperity, then growing inequality has emerged as one of their deepest failings in the early part of this century. After all, how ‘effective’ is having ninety-nine per cent of the world’s wealth go to less than one per cent of its population? Is it ‘efficient’to allow the gap between the rich and poor in leading Western countries to return to levels not seen since the nineteenth century? The widening gap between haves and have-nots has become the focus of much public, political, and policy angst in recent times. The resulting debate is often big on ideological point-scoring on one side, or arcane debates about definition and measurement of inequality on the other. The result is a shortfall in the clear-sighted argument and analysis of practical solutions needed to tackle the problem.
Inequality: What Can Be Done?, written by British economist Anthony B. Atkinson, is a refreshing departure from these dynamics. Atkinson has been at the centre of research into inequality for more than four decades. As inequality scholarship’s ‘grand old man’, he has developed extensive inequality databases, pioneered new forms of analyses, and coined key terms that have provided the foundations of the current debate. (Atkinson has also been an intellectual mentor to Thomas Piketty, his younger French counterpart, who set the global debate on inequality alight last year with his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which I reviewed for ABR in August 2014.)