Capital and Ideology and Ideology and Ideology

Capital & Ideology & Ideology

Not many authors have ever made as big a cultural splash as Thomas Piketty did with Capital. His 2019 follow-up, Capital and Ideology, is a big book dedicated to the same general themes but expanding their scope both philosophically, historically and geographically.

At the very beginning of Capital and Ideology, Piketty steps outside the narrative to tell the reader why they should spend time on the first three quarters of the book – which walk through a global history of inequality from Medieval times on. If, says Piketty, you are tempted to skip all this history and go directly to the parts about the modern world it would be a mistake. You can’t really understand the recommendations in the last four chapters if you haven’t absorbed the historical lessons of the first twelve.

This may be the worst advice an author has ever given a reader. If you really must read Capital and Ideology, do yourself a mammoth favor. Don’t skim those first 1,700 (Libby) pages. Skip them. There is NOTHING in the first three parts of the book that you need to know to appreciate what is in Part 4. In fact, there is little of interest in the first three parts of the book – especially if you’ve already read Capital. The reading experience is a profound lesson in the fallacy of sunk costs. I kept grinding on in the belief that surely there must be some recompense for the effort. Some glimmer of insight. Some philosophically important argument about justice and equality. Some minimally interesting historical insight. Something to redeem the effort and the slog. No. No. No. And NO.

But in that last section you will get Piketty doing what he does pretty well – high-level economic and social analysis of public policy in the modern world. And not one thing from that last section is in any way dependent on what has come before. Indeed, you will be struck by the fact that even Piketty rarely bothers to reference any of the earlier history and when he does, it’s either obvious or useless.

If you’re the sort of person who takes this kind of advice, you’ll never know how much pain you’ve been spared. If you’re not, just remember, as your eyeballs shrink with boredom around page 400, that you were warned.

Piketty and Intellectual Honesty

In Capital and Ideology, Piketty is working as a partisan not an academic. The intellectual dishonesty is pervasive and constant. It’s as present in his history as it is in his economics and philosophy. It’s a dishonesty so ubiquitous that it makes learning from the book a chore. One must constantly consider where and to what extent Piketty is cherry-picking, distorting or exaggerating to help score his points. It also means that the reader must shrug off Piketty’s shoddy intellectual habits to give a fair reading to what he says.

Take, for example, the concept of sacralization. Piketty is big on things being sacralized – at least when it comes to things he doesn’t like. Property rights are continually being sacralized by woefully ill-thinking societies in his history. But what exactly does that mean and why does Piketty only reserve the usage for ideas he doesn’t like? Is equality sacralized in communist societies? In Piketty? Would that be a bad thing or a good thing? Piketty never explains. He never provides a working definition. He merely asserts that some idea was sacralized and leaves you with the impression that sacralization is a very bad thing.

Is sacralizing different than believing something to be true? Would we say that a society sacralized life if refused to invoke the death penalty? Would that be a bad thing? Is sacralizing something valuable bad? Can a society sacralize more than one thing? Can those things conflict? I have no idea, because Piketty never bothers to explain what exactly he means by sacralization and why only concepts he dislikes are sacralized.

Another one of Piketty’s bad habits is the ad hominem argument. I lost track of the number of times the words Hayek and Pinochet are joined together – as if Hayek’s crowning intellectual achievement was a brochure for the Chilean dictator. It’s as if, in Piketty’s world, chanting “Keynes and Stalin” three times would be a refutation of socialism. Except, of course, that “Stalin” would never pass Piketty’s leftist lips.

Contra-Hayek, Piketty is anxious to point out that not every social experiment in egalitarianism went disastrously wrong. But he seems immune to the idea that Hayek himself may have helped prevent that outcome. Piketty is constantly assuring the reader that many paths are possible and that ideas may make a difference in the course of history; but apparently that isn’t the case when it comes to thinkers Piketty disagrees with.

Discussing the warnings of late 19th century thinkers about the dangers of re-distribution, income and wealth taxes, he helpfully points out that the experience of European and American politics of the 20th century makes nonsense of their concerns. One might imagine that the 20th century experiences of Russia, China, Cuba, Eastern Europe, Vietnam, Cambodia and North Korea make those thinkers seem rather prescient.

Piketty’s whole take on the great communist experience is laughably dishonest.

A more fair minded student of history might note that the drive to redistributive justice resulted in a murderers row of the most barbaric regimes in the history of the world. But, hey, it’s not as is it always went that way. What’s forty or fifty million dead to an intellectual historian? Piketty laments the failure of the communist experiment (too much centralization is his brilliant analysis) without ever suggesting that it might have implications for a theory of equality.

Even those in Piketty’s camp aren’t immune from his arrogance and gracelessness. Nowhere in Capital and Ideology does Piketty present anything resembling an original philosophical argument about the benefit or importance of equality. What he does provide is lifted, with neither grace nor care, from the incomparably more accomplished thinker, John Rawls. Piketty puts his debt this way:

“Some readers may find that the principles of justice I set forth here are similar to those formulated by John Rawls in 1971. There is some truth to this, provided one adds that similar principles can be found in much earlier forms in many civilizations…”

I’m sure Rawls would have been touched by such a profoundly gracious citation.

The effort involved in reading a book where the author is manifestly untrustworthy is considerable. In this respect, it’s a little bit like Graeber & Wengrow’s “Dawn of Everything” (who deploy a similar bag of intellectual tricks) except that with Capital & Ideology you learn less and the book is much less entertaining.

Piketty the Philosopher

If Piketty has an interest in philosophy, he hides it throughout C&I’s 2,500 pages. There is nothing in Capital & Ideology that would count as a serious philosophical argument. Citing Rawls’ Theory of Justice is as close as Piketty ever comes to providing an intellectual basis for his conviction that equality in economic outcomes is or ought to be our central concern. Nor does Piketty, despite a strong interest in the possibility of transnational governance, ever mention, deal with, or take advantage of Rawls’ later work in Political Liberalism. That’s a terrible omission since Rawls’ concept of an overlapping consensus is a great starting point for thinking about the potential, and potential difficulties, in a transnational system.

You will search Capital & Ideology in vain for any argument about why equality is good, necessary or important. You will search in vain for any description of what the role of society should be or what kind of values we should have. You will find no explanation for why Piketty thinks economic inequality is particularly pernicious of all the various forms of inequality. Nor will you find anything resembling a coherent political philosophy; an explanation of why democracy is valuable, why economic inequality is particularly pernicious to it, or why we have trans-national obligations.

It is startling in a huge book devoted entirely to economic inequality that there is no actual argument for why economic equality is valuable. The closest you will come is an argument that during the 20th Century, the Western world saw significant economic growth and a historically significant reduction in inequality. Which is not really an argument at all unless you make some pretty strong assumptions (which Piketty seems to accept as so incontrovertible as to be hardly worth discussion).

Those assumptions are:

Equality of income and wealth are inherently desirable and supremely important to society

The only argument against measures that reduce inequality is the argument that policies that promote equality may restrain growth.

If there has ever been a period of growth while reducing inequality this would “prove” such assertions baseless.

In saying that Piketty makes these assumptions, I do not mean to imply that Piketty lays them out as his working assumptions. I mean that he never provides an explicit argument for any of them but that one cannot make sense of Capital & Ideology without assuming these things.

Many people today would agree with at least the initial half of the first assumption, but it is hardly uncontroversial and the fact that something is inherently desirable in no way implies that it might not compete with and be in a conflict with many other things that are equally or more desirable.

The second claim is just nonsense. The idea that policies that promote equality will limit growth is an argument, but it’s hardly the only argument one can muster. If we take Rawls’ Theory of Justice to be Piketty’s position (and he certainly doesn’t give us anything better), then we can easily find many different philosophical criticisms of measures targeted to reducing inequality that don’t rely on preaching economic growth. Anarchy, State and Utopia is often seen as a kind of intellectual companion piece to A Theory of Justice, and it argues for a process-oriented view of justice and makes compelling arguments against the Rawlsian view of outcomes-based justice. Bernard Williams leveled devastating criticisms against the Rawlsian conception of a rationalist decision-theory based on an original-position and provided compelling arguments for thinking that an abstract theory of justice divorced from other human/cultural concerns was simply a mistake. The idea that measuring economic output is even a credible way to think about societal success is hardly a given, and you can even get TW2BR’s critique of the possibility of a  utilitarian public policy based on optimizing “well-being” here. There’s simply no reason to think that GDP growth is an inherent good. We may choose to value it or we may not. We may think it’s a mad metric or that it’s simply beside the point. Regardless, the idea that the only possible argument against forced equality of outcomes is limiting growth is just wrong.

Point three is not really a point for philosophers except to note that methodologically this kind of argument is almost always a mistake. Very few things are flatly impossible. To find a short period in history where something happened is a good way to show that something is not impossible but is a fairly poor way to show that something is likely, easy, or repeatable in current circumstances. History is a series of unique moments and if you want to use it establish more than impossibility, you generally need a wide range of examples.

It isn’t that philosophical arguments can’t be made for Piketty’s positions, it’s that he doesn’t make them. He simply assumes that the reader will be on board. If you’re not already on board with Piketty’s assumptions he’s not going to give you any reasons why you should be. And if you are, you don’t really need to read much of this anyway.

Piketty the Historian

If Piketty isn’t much interested in philosophy (political or otherwise), he’s deeply interested in history. A huge portion of Capital & Ideology is a history book. It’s not, unfortunately, a very good history book. The central problem for Capital & Ideology as a history is his core idea – that the proper frame for looking at the past is from the perspective of an “inequality regime.” Piketty asserts (without really bothering to provide an argument) that every regime must justify its inequalities. He also assumes (again without providing any argument) that distribution of wealth in a society is its defining factor.

That may seem like a natural assumption to many people today, but in historical terms it’s decidedly odd.  Very few past societies believed in or were interested in economic equality. If we assume that governments of all ages must meet what Bernard Williams called the Basic Legitimacy Demand (BLD) that people, by and large, accept the right of whoever makes and enforces rules to do so, it seems clear that in few historical societies would anyone have felt it necessary to justify unequal distributions of wealth. Nor, for that matter, did societies necessarily need to justify unequal distributions of power.

For most of history and in most societies, people would not have thought of the distribution of wealth or power as the fundamental fact about the society and it’s not obvious why we should do so either. Why, for instance, is it better to consider societies as “inequality” regimes than functional regimes where the justification for the social structure involves the creation of roles necessary to proper functioning? Piketty never says.

Yes, there’s a modern tendency to think that we have some special meta-insight into power-dynamics that let’s us pull back the curtain on past societies. But this as manifestly absurd as the Marxist vision of history as the internal struggle over class. Piketty regularly asserts that ideas matter, and that what people believe profoundly shapes society (and hurrah for that). Yet in examining Medieval Europe, considering what a Christian might have valued seems never to have crossed Piketty’s mind.

Like his philosophical readings, his history gives short shrift to the ideas of those whose politics he doesn’t care for. I’ve already touched on his remarkable criticism of conservative fears about redistribution. Piketty is equally mocking of fears about the income tax (he specifically mocks the fears of those who predict that it will result in the mass of democratic peoples simply voting themselves other people’s wealth – seemingly unaware of the irony as lays out a plan for 90% taxation along with a progressive wealth tax).

Piketty manages to ignore every historical negative consequence of egalitarian ideals. He admits that communism was disappointing, but he certainly doesn’t seem to think it’s disastrous record any vindication on the warnings of those who feared egalitarian despotism. He constantly describes the period between 1930 and 1980 as a kind of egalitarian utopia where wealth inequality decreased dramatically and the economies of Western Europe and the U.S. grew substantially. But, of course, by the late ’70s that seemingly utopian period had resulted in an increasingly schlerotic society beset by inflation, unemployment and a lack of innovation.

Similarly, Piketty seems to willfully misunderstand potential objections. In delving into the history of Swiss equality, he points out that prior to the early 20th century, the Swiss had a very inegalitarian society by wealth and political order. Indeed, in granting franchise based on wealth it may have been the most inegalitarian system in Europe. This, says Piketty, makes nonsense of the idea that Swiss culture might be better suited to an egalitarian ethos than some others.

I’m not in fundamental disagreement with Piketty here. The idea that national character is like some kind of genetic predestination is fatuous. Cultures are constantly evolving, and culture just is the product of people. While culture is undeniably hard to steer (there being no captain, no navigator and no steering mechanism), it is constantly changing course. But the idea that the Swiss are an especially egalitarian people is surely not the argument most people who think culture matters would make.

There are facts on the ground about Swiss culture (then and now) that make certain kinds of policy efforts more tractable. Piketty mentions that at the end of 19th century the Swiss already had a remarkably educated population – meaning that along the key social dimension for economic value Swiss society was already essentially equal. Nor are the Swiss troubled with strong regional, racial, or religious divides that often become fissure lines for resentment and mistrust around social programs. Europeans loved to mock the racial troubles of the U.S. until they, too, had an ethnic and religious minority of significant size.

Despite harping on the importance of ideas, Piketty somehow misses the importance of the underlying culture in generating and supporting those ideas. What people value matters enormously. The history of the 20th century is a series of case-studies in the kind of culture and type of consensus required to make a social state and a democracy function. Piketty the historian seems utterly blind to those lessons.

Piketty the Political Thinker

If Piketty is uninterested in philosophy and is a poor historian, he’s probably even worse as a political thinker. Like most of us, Piketty is committed to democracy, but nowhere in Capital & Ideology does he put forward a clear theory of what makes a good democracy, what makes a democracy work, or what the role of economic equality is in that democracy. Piketty certainly believes that economic inequality leads to disparities in political power and in the allocation of social goods. However, he never puts forward any argument for why economic inequality is a particular danger to democracy and he never addresses any other form of potential inequality.

Piketty argues for a generational wealth reset (via massively progressive taxes on income, wealth, and inheritance) along with a universal capital gift (UGC) for every 25 year old. The UGC is an intriguing idea, and Piketty argues that with it, some would be free to build businesses, others to pursue craft or artistic endeavors, and others to involve themselves in politics or social causes. Fair enough. But let’s consider the implications of some people involving themselves in political and social endeavors for democracy. A young Barack Obama forswears what would surely have been a lucrative career in law or business to become a political organizer. His work influences hundreds of people, then thousands, then millions. He invests all his time, life and considerable abilities into political causes.

This may seem like a very good thing to most of us, but it’s clear that in spending his time on political matters, Obama has considerably more weight and voice than someone who spends their time on artistic ones. Is that a problem for democracy? Why should Obama’s voice matter more than mine in shaping societies goals just because he spends his life on politics? Does that mean his view of what our society should be and value is more important than yours or mine? And how, precisely, is the investment of time by a supremely talented politician like Obama different than the investment of money by Bill Gates or Elon Musk?

If unequal wealth is a problem for democracy because it means that some people’s views are magnified in the public space, then why isn’t time investment an equal problem? Doesn’t it seem likely that if people who invest their time in political matters get to determine policy, they will place too much weight on political solutions?

And if you think there’s something special about time investment, what about fame? When Kim Kardashian or Greta Thunberg tweet about climate change they have an outsized impact compared to pathetic outlets like TW2BR. Why do the famous get to have more say in public policy? And why isn’t Piketty concerned about social media instead of wealth? It would take an enormous expenditure to equal the kind of weight Greta or Kim have in social media. If the inequality of voice generated by wealth is a problem for democracy, why aren’t these kinds of inequalities a bigger problem?

Or does Piketty believe fame is a meritocracy?

As with most of Capital & Ideology, Piketty never explains any of the underpinnings to his views. He just assumes everyone will agree that wealth inequality is both A problem and THE problem for democracy. Piketty certainly believes that institutions like the Supreme Court are problematic for democracy, but he never makes a convincing case that untrammeled democracy is useful or good. He never makes a case for why wealth inequality is a particular problem compared to other types of inequality. He never advances any theory of checks and balances, of distribution of power, or of the different elements of what power might consist of.

Nowhere is Piketty’s shallowness more evident than in his discussion of the current Chinese “democracy”:

“Another key CCP argument is that the party represents all strata of the population. Even if only a minority are active members, it is a minority more motivated and determined than the average Chinese citizen (because party members are carefully selected and must prove their continued dedication) as well as more profoundly representative than Western parties and electoral democracies allow. In fact, according to available data, of the 90 million members of the CCP in 2015, 50 percent were workers, employees, or peasants; 20 percent retirees; and 30 percent administrators or technical managers in state firms. Admittedly, managers are overrepresented (they constitute only 20-30 percent of the population), but the gap is not very wide and certainly narrower than in most Western countries.

These arguments for the superiority of Chinese party-managed democracy are interesting and potentially convincing in strictly theoretic terms, but they nevertheless run into a number of serious difficulties. First, it is quite difficult to know what role workers, employees, and peasants really play in the actual functioning of the party at the local level. At the highest level—we find that Chinese billionaires and the world of business in general are dramatically overrepresented.

The Western press often harps on the these points as evidence of the hypocrisy of the Chinese regime, which is closer to plutocracy than to communism with its deliberative, socially representative cells. The critique is on the mark. Note, however, that the available data are far from precise. The wealthy are undeniably overrepresented in the NPC but perhaps not much more than in the US Congress (which is not particularly reassuring).”

It’s hard to parse how stupid and blind to reality this whole passage is. It’s the sort of exculpatory passage familiar to anyone who has read the appalling 20th century apologies for various dictatorships of the left (no matter how brutal or barbaric) from the intellectual classes. Keynes would have been proud. What’s surprising about it is that China is obviously leftist in name only and it’s hard to see how or why they should have retained ANY of Piketty’s socialist sympathies.

But the passage is even more puzzling for what it implies about his idea of democratic theory. Note that if 90 million members of the CCP “chosen for their proven dedication” were really allowed to decide everything this would, apparently, be a very good democracy for the billion plus adults in China – provided that managers weren’t overrepresented. After all, it’s “potentially convincing in strictly theoretic terms”.

But who gets to do the choosing of the lucky 10%? Why is dedication democratically important? Are other types of proportionalities (ethnic, regional, gender, age, language, profession, race, religion, personality type, physical beauty, etc.) important to include or only one’s economic class?

You’ll be shocked to learn that Piketty never says.

At Last, the “Good” Part

It may scratch my meta humorous itch to structure this review rather like C&I itself. So, if you’re tired of wading through seven pages of criticism to hear what’s useful in C&I, here’s the payoff. Piketty is not without virtue as a thinker around macroeconomic public policy and politics, and the last four chapters are all worth reading. Capital & Ideology  gets legitimately interesting when Piketty leaves behind “scholarship” and begins to tackle questions around the structure of the EU, the shifting political allegiances of the educated class, and the virtues of different educational, tax and wealth policies.

Chapters 14&15 track the gradual shifts in support for parties of the left & right in Europe and America over the past 6-8 decades. If you’re a careful student of electoral opinion research, the shift of the educated class from the right to the left and, particularly in recent years, the potential convergence of high-income and educated classes for the left are not news. However, this is an area where Piketty’s data-rich approach is informative and even compelling.

The only real drawback to this analysis is his reliance on data that provides long-term comparability, meaning that much of the opinion research is very shallow. That limits the diagnostic utility of the data. The shifts are clear, their causes not so much. And Piketty’s diagnosis of the shift casts it almost exclusively as a problem of the left abandoning the struggle for equality in the wake of the communist implosion. Parties, however, exist to win power. And it’s hard to argue (politically) with a party able to monopolize the educated class in a modern Western society.

Still, this is where Piketty is at his best. He not only presents a convincing case for the shift, he provides powerful examples of the way the educated classes have used their power to steer educational value to their children. He doesn’t much address the even more compelling ways the educated classes have steered economic value to themselves with regulatory credentialism (much done in the name of civil rights), public bureaucracy and public-sector unions. Yet the narrative is a powerful corrective to the way the issues are often framed by the educated elites driving the left.

Similarly, his analysis of problems in the structure of the EU, the challenges of the “race to the bottom” that the structure engenders as governments compete to attract industries, and the problematic nature of net value flows across national boundaries may be less interesting to American readers but form a compelling and detailed critique of key elements in the EU structure. Piketty, obviously, loathes the identitarian right, but isn’t going to drink Brussels Kool-Aid in an act of complementary schismogenesis.

The recent conflict in Ukraine has mad clear the challenges that the EU’s unanimity requirements place on effective action and governance. Unanimity requirements put dire constraints on the ability of an institution to adapt or grow. It is painfully obvious that the EU exists in a kind of twilight zone between union and treaty – an uncomfortable place to be whenever changes in the world dictate changes in action.

Though the predominance of Federal taxes ameliorates much of our “race-to-the-bottom” problem in the U.S., we still see state and local governments granting special breaks to companies – a public policy approach that almost never yields positive net benefits. There are genuine advantages to allowing localization and experimentation, but when governmental incentives are targeted to outside businesses (giving newcomers much more favorable treatment than homegrown companies), it’s hard to argue that any deeper purpose than cannibalization is being served by having localities pit themselves against each other to attract private enterprises.

Similarly, despite our increasing geographic polarization, the U.S. faces much less tension around the net flow of taxes to benefits by state than does the EU. Few voters in the United States could say which states are net gainers and losers at the federal level and the issue has never become a significant flashpoint. Piketty’s analysis of the size and nature of those flows in Europe is illuminating – and it’s also a case where he usefully couples the analysis to the shaping of policy. In proposing a trans-national sub-European structure, he carefully delineates a policy of net neutral flows as a way to build trust between participants. That’s not because Piketty believes net zero flows are in any way advantageous – he simply recognizes that they are politically problematic until deeper bonds have been formed.

It’s one of the few places in Capital and Ideology where Piketty’s instincts are rooted in a practical appreciation of the real world. He’s more attuned to EU politics than to anything else.

Finally, Piketty turns in the last chapter to his prescriptions for a more just society. Much of this is concerned with the necessity for transnationalism both to combat economic injustice and to fight climate change. Little of this is compelling philosophically and none of it is very interesting politically. Piketty never makes a case for why democratic voters should promote transnational interests and never seems to recognize that it might be a problem for democratic theory. Of course, Piketty never seems to acknowledge that there might be issues in extending a democracy across fundamentally different cultures (he really should read more Rawls) so he may not see it as much of a problem.

On the other hand, Piketty lays out several practical directions for policy that do not involve transnational interests. These include changes to educational funding, a UBI, the UGC, and changes to income and wealth reporting requirements.

No one (left or right) who has thought about the way education is funded in either the U.S. or Europe could possibly be satisfied with the current system. Nor is the problem one of total spend. In both the E.U. and the U.S., we have created systems that favor specific kinds of people, certain types of education and a great deal of pointless credentialism all of which are unfair and counterproductive.

The pros/cons of UBI are complex and Piketty doesn’t add much to what is already a rich debate. It is by no means certain that a UBI would be a net positive to society, but from the perspective of transformative experience and ethics (which is TW2BR’s main interest), few policies have as much potential upside to give people the security to live interesting lives. A Universal Capital Grant is not yet in widespread policy debate, but it’s a fascinating idea with a perhaps even greater upside than UBI.

In short, there’s a fair amount worth thinking about in the final part of Capital & Ideology.


Capital and Ideology is not a good book. It is far too long. It is frequently dishonest. Much of it has little point or relation to the interesting sections. Piketty is not a compelling writer and the book is a wearisome slog (insert footnote here to chart 27 of the time spent by the reader in looking at footnotes). Yet in it’s last four chapters, it contains legitimate analysis and criticism. The analysis of demographic shifts in the electorate is well thought-out and compelling. His critique of the EU’s structural problems are sharp, insightful and even sensitive to the political facts on the ground. And he does, at the very end, have interesting things to say about policy directions for a better society. Things that are interesting even if (like me), you are not in Piketty’s ideological camp and are unconvinced by his bad philosophy, overweening concern with inequality, and childish take on democracy.

My suspicion is that most readers of any political shading will have given up on Capital and Ideology long before they get to the last part of the book. That’s not a huge shame. Piketty’s best stuff can be usefully summarized in a Vox article – it doesn’t take reading the book to glean what’s important from the last four chapters. Nor does it contain the scholarship or intellectual rigor to reward the reader wanting more than Vox can provide. But if you do want to tackle this behemoth, I’d suggest reading Capital & Ideology Manga-style (back to front) until you’ve exhausted your patience.

[A side note for consumers of the 50-hour audio book. I both listened to the book and read it, and I have never been more confused about what to think of an audio book narrator. Rick Adams, the narrator, perfectly captures Piketty’s smugness, intellectual dishonesty and arrogance. But is that a good thing? Is Adams just a natural to vocalize Piketty’s smugness or is he a really fine actor? If you dislike the reader of a dislikable text has the reader succeeded or failed? If the reader of Art of the Deal was fabulously annoying would that be a good thing? I genuinely cannot say.]

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