I was struck again and again with how common huge disparities in income and wealth have been for centuries, in countries around the world– and yet how each country regards its own particular disparities as unusual, if not unique. Some of these disparities have been among racial or ethnic groups, some among nations, and some among how to summarize an essay, continents, or whole civilizations. In the nineteenth century, real per capita income in the Balkans was about one-third that in Britain.
That dwarfs intergroup disparities that many in the United States today regard as not merely strange but sinister. Singapore has a median per capita income that is literally hundreds of times greater than that in Burma. During the rioting in Indonesia last year, much of it directed against the ethnic Chinese in that country, some commentators found it strange that the Chinese minority, which is just 5 percent of the Indonesian population, owned an estimated four-fifths of the capital in the country. But it is not strange.
Such disparities have long been common in other countries in Southeast Asia, where Chinese immigrants typically entered poor and then prospered, creating whole industries in the process. People from India did the same in much of East Africa and in Fiji. Occupations have been similarly unequal. In the early 1920s, Jews were just 6 percent of the population of Hungary and 11 percent of the population of Poland, but they were more than half of all the physicians in both countries, as well as being vastly over-represented in commerce and other fields. In the early twentieth century, all of the firms in all of the industries producing the following products in Brazil’s state of Rio Grande do Sul were owned by people of German ancestry: trunks, stoves, paper, hats, neckties, leather, soap, glass, watches, beer, confections and carriages.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, just three countries produced most of the manufactured goods in the world– Britain, Germany, and the United States. By the late twentieth century, it was estimated that 17 percent of the people in the world produce four-fifths of the total output on the planet. Such examples could be multiplied longer than you would have the patience to listen. Why are there such disparities? In some cases, we can trace the reasons, but in other cases we cannot. A more fundamental question, however, is: Why should anyone have ever expected equality in the first place?