Looking back through forms of governance devised by humans throughout history the problem of wealth distribution has been a consistently destructive dilemma in terms of governmental longevity. When too much wealth concentrates among too few conditions become ripe for revolution; for those at the bottom of the heap to protest, often violently, and to get rid of those with all the wealth and power.
I learn most of my history these days from literature. The intersection between literature and politics, or literature and history, is expansive. If you want to read about monarchs in England and France the choices are so abundant that it is difficult to pick where to start. Investigate the reputations of the authors. Choose those who do in-depth research.
Read the most well-known Russian authors and you will get a pretty fair historical picture of life under the Czars or life during and after the revolution, depending on the title you chose.
To immerse yourself in Rome read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or, on a much less academic level, read the Colleen McCullough Rome books. You can pick almost any time in history and find great fiction that will give you a great feel for the culture and how it affected those who lived in that society and time frame. Today you can just ask Amazon or Google for a list of books, for example, that describe Russia before and after the Russian Revolution where once you would have taken a trip to the library to consult the card catalog.
Monarchs, according to accounts, were not always wealthy but their people (except for the religious leaders) were even poorer and monarchs had to appear wealthy in order to look powerful to other monarchs, so they often had to take money or services or land from even their poorest subjects. Monarchs had quite a good run but eventually the emergence of the new democracy/republic in America turned monarchs into ceremonial figures and some form of a parliament or congress actually ran the government. In France it took a violent revolution to end the monarchy but in other nations it was accomplished in an almost evolutionary process, or by political coup.
Rome lasted for so long because the wealthier citizens, who were landowners in Rome and therefore members of the government, were constantly at war adding land and resources to alleviate the frequent famines and economic downturns that plagued Roman life. However, eventually power corrupted the rich and influential men of Rome who decided that they were so superior (the Caesars) that they should govern for life as emperors. Roman government just declined until it lost its preeminent place on the world stage and other nations took over. There was chaos, however, for Roman citizens who were unlucky enough to live during the declining years of the empire
Communism was certainly a response to the consolidation of money and power among a few aristocrats who lived lives of privilege while their serfs eked out brutally deprived lives. We saw communist revolutions in Russia and in China, Vietnam, and other less dramatic transformations. But a century later we find that there is a new wealthy, privileged class that has taken power even in places that experienced serious class upheaval. There are billionaires from every continent on this year’s Forbes list.
All history is somewhat skewed but it is even more difficult to get history from China that you can be sure is free of propaganda. The Chinese Revolution happened through what was basically a political coup by Mao. The Cultural Revolution is full of horror stories. The redistribution of wealth by authoritarian decree did not go smoothly. I read an account by Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (who now live in France). There are also a number of other good fiction books by authors who left China to live elsewhere.
Socialism has been practiced in many places but rarely in a pure form. Capitalism is usually mixed into so-called socialist nations making it difficult to know if inequalities occur in societies where socialism is undiluted. I’m not sure we have ever even seen such a society although we have seen smaller scale experiments with socialism and social elements that have been socialized and that still seem to function. Does pure socialism sidestep corruption? I doubt it, because corruption is not inherent in a system of government; it is inherent in the people who run governments (all of us).
However many inaccuracies there are in my very brief trip through history, it seems that we can at least see a precautionary tendency that could save us a lot of grief. It is clear that when wealth gets concentrated among too few people events will conspire to dispossess them of their privilege and reboot the whole process.
Perhaps for a while there will be a more equitable distribution of whatever constitutes wealth in a society, but eventually corruption or skill or luck will recreate a gap between wealthy and poor. For a long time a “middle class” has filled the gap between the very rich and those who live in poverty. If the middle class essentially disappears or feels poor by comparison with the affluent class then they stop acting as a buffer between the two groups and we are back to inviting a coup or a revolution or decline or an evolutionary governmental change.
[I did not look at the patterns in anarchies (do we have any examples that are not science fiction) or tribal societies but there are some accounts of these which still seem to suggest that a class structure still evolved and wars were fought to regain balance (or out of jealousy). In pure dictatorships it is easy to guess that when a moment of weakness appears upheaval will occur.]
Since it is our nature to be corrupt or to hoard or to feel that winning endows us with some sort of divine favor, will it ever be possible to design a culture that values economic balance and truly equal opportunities for all citizens, that acknowledges when people excel but doesn’t allow them to gloat or abuse their success to the deprivation of others. We could. We have really big brains, but it will require us to constantly root out our worst selves. (OK, I should not have gone to see Arrival because it gave the impression that there is hope for humanity yet.) Things are certainly not looking very hopeful right now back here in reality.
What we are seeing right now in America flies in the face of conventional practice? We have overwhelmingly wealthy people staging a coup to take over the government from the people. This is revolution in reverse. It feels bizarre because it is bizarre. These greedy folks feel they don’t have enough money so they want to take their money out of central government and put it back in their states which means that it will eventually find its way back into their own pockets.
Is this a pre-emptive strike? Did Republicans think America was ripe for revolution (even just a progressive one) and decide to take matters into their own hands first. It may work for a while but if the people’s losses are too great it will end up where all societies that are top heavy end up, in chaos until a new order is reestablished (and all you conspiracy cranks, I am not threatening you with your “New World Order,” that fabled Liberal hell that you fear). Assuming we live through the DT years, how will balance be achieved? Will balance ever be achieved? What do you think?