Books in Brief 2: September 2022

A Brief History of Equality, by Thomas Piketty (Harvard University Press; 288 pp., $27.95). French economist Thomas Piketty has endeared himself to the global left’s vocal fanatics, including AOC and Bernie, here in America. His 2013 doorstopper, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, sold more than 2.2 million copies. We all have mammoth books sitting on our shelves that we mistakenly imagined we would plow through one day. I suspect Capital has remained unopened on many of those 2.2 million bookshelves. To accommodate today’s 280-character attention spans, his current work, A Brief History of Equality, summarizes Capital and two other titles. If less is indeed more, then Piketty’s latest proves that less can be a whole lot crazier, too.

After A Brief History of Equality gives the briefest history of equality, its bulk spells out Piketty’s—and AOC’s and Bernie’s—unrealistic agenda for our utopian future. Piketty never specifies whether “the development of the welfare state, progressive taxation, participative socialism, electoral and educational equality or the exit from neocolonialism” ranks as the most important “transformation” needed to get us to his heaven. It’s a screed; propose them all.

If you thought we already had progressive taxation, then either you don’t speak French or the book’s translator messed up. Piketty would prefer tax rates around 90 percent to fund an “inheritance for all.” Such windfalls would empower their beneficiaries to “reject certain job offers, buy an apartment, [or] engage in a personal project.” If you’ve ever met a wealthy heir, then you know his “personal projects” all too often include coke snorting, foreign sports-car demolition, and concubinage. But kudos to Piketty for suggesting we start taxing endowments and foundations, many of which harm the common good on a tax-advantaged basis.

Don’t underestimate the ambitious Frenchman’s reach. His revolutionary plans don’t honor borders. He believes poor countries should “receive part of the taxes paid by the planet’s multinationals and billionaires.” And those with a net worth over $10 million will fork over 2 percent of it each year to the deserving Global South. Why, you humbly ask? “Because the rich countries’ prosperity would not exist without the poor countries.” Displaced American factory workers can think about that one while they sit on hold for someone in the Philippines to answer their call to the local unemployment office.

(John Greenville)

American Exceptionalism: A New History of an Old Idea, by Ian Tyrrell (University of Chicago; 288 pp., $34.05). Australian historian Ian Tyrrell’s productivity shows no signs of slowing, even now in his second emeritus decade at the University of New South Wales. Building off his voluminous scholarship on temperance, missionaries, and empire, Tyrrell’s latest historiographical romp provides a concise history of American exceptionalism.

Opportunistic American leaders have abused, misunderstood, and exploited exceptionalism to support colonial expansion, foreign wars, and increased immigration. A deeper understanding of American exceptionalism—its historical roots, philosophical foundation, and religious underpinnings—will help Americans understand their place in the world and in history.

According to Tyrrell’s conclusion, “The United States is exceptional because a large majority of Americans have believed it to be so. They have been taught to think it is so.” Marxists originally used the phrase as a pejorative term to denote the United States’ escape from the class conflict besetting 19th-century Europe. Nowadays, educated minds are more likely to think of prolific sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset when they hear the concept cited. The broad-minded Lipset looked back further than the Marxists, all the way to the American Revolution, which he saw as “the foundation of national identity and exceptionalism.” Recognizing Lipset’s line in the sand, Tyrrell updates the story from the country’s revolutionary period.

American thinkers in the 19th century masterminded the exceptionalist ethos. Historian George Bancroft in 1891 defined the American creed as a “blend of egalitarianism, democracy, and nationalism.” Lyman Beecher could only imagine God’s provident hand behind the United States’ unlikely success. His daughters Catherine and Harriet, and many other women, promoted “exceptionalism via self-reform.”

Over time, Americans’ understanding of their exceptionalism moved from a religious basis to one of material abundance. The concept has persisted through “slavery, the Civil War, the upheavals of the 1890s and World War I.” Like scar tissue, it got stronger by existential crises. Unfortunately, scars also cripple. Madeleine Albright’s exceptionally stupid 1998 boast—“We see further than other countries into the future”—indicates scarring of the brain.

Readers may feel suffocated by page 207. A feeling of “exceptionalism is everything and everything is exceptionalism” pervades the text. Take a deep breath. Tyrrell’s erudition and wisdom, along with his deft harnessing of sources, outweighs the risk of asphyxiation.

(John Greenville)

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