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The Economists Who Found the Richest People of All Time

Branko Milanovic and Guido Alfani study inequality over the course of human history. The results are not good.

In late September 1066, William of Normandy asked his second cousin, Alan Rufus (en français: Alain le Roux), to join the Normans’ fateful war party against the Saxons. Rufus was the second son of a Breton count, at a time when the firstborn son would inherit the title and all the family wealth. It was unlikely that he would prosper if he remained in France. So he enlisted in William’s expedition to England, distinguishing himself as a commander at the Battle of Hastings. After William’s victory, he had himself crowned king, confiscated lands from the Saxon nobility, and doled out their vast estates to his favorites. Rufus received a great deal of property in Cambridgeshire. After he then helped William suppress various Saxon rebellions, he was given a lordship and even more land in Yorkshire (where Rufus’s castle still stands).*

Before Rufus died in 1093, the economic historian Guido Alfani informs us in As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West, the combined revenues from his landholdings reached, by one estimate, more than 7 percent of England’s entire national income. That would make Rufus just about the richest person ever to live in England (excluding kings and queens), Alfani writes. One calculation puts Rufus’s wealth, in 2023 dollars, at $242 billion. By comparison, the industrialist Gopichand Hinduja, who topped The Times of London’s 2023 list of the richest Britons, has a combined family wealth of $43 billion, and the cosmetics tycoon Bernard Arnault, who topped Forbes’s 2023 list of the richest people in the world, has a combined family wealth of $211 billion.

As Gods Among Men: A History of the Rich in the West
by Guido Alfani
Princeton University Press, 440 pp., $35.00

Rufus was born into wealth and benefited from a family connection, but he earned most of his fortune through his own labors—that is, by shedding copious quantities of Saxon blood. With the advent of Norman feudalism, this path to wealth largely gave way to the quality of one’s own blood—that is, to being born into nobility. Rufus died childless, but King William’s other favorites left their children staggering quantities of land (and therefore wealth). For some heirs, the inheritance amounted, in today’s dollars, to tens and even hundreds of billions. This was the capital that seeded the English aristocracy.

Nearly a thousand years after the Norman Conquest, the titled fortunes acquired therein are long since dissipated. But if you live in England today and possess a Norman name—Mandeville, Baskerville, Montgomery, Percy, Darcy, Talbot—you’re still likely to be significantly wealthier than someone who does not. Rufus’s lordship passed to his brother Stephen, and, 900-odd years later, to one Allan Le Roux, a South African with addresses in Paris and London who pretty clearly is not hard up for cash. Le Roux is president of Premier Gold Investments, an asset management company that, according to its website, “deals with various single-family offices and high-net worth individuals on a private membership basis only.” Blood will tell.

Visions of Inequality: From the French Revolution to the End of the Cold War
by Branko Milanovic
Belknap Press, 368 pp., $32.95

The current method by which we measure economic inequality is through the mathematical distribution of wealth and income. We speak less of bloodlines and class divisions and more of medians and fractiles. But up until the tail end of the nineteenth century, Branko Milanovic writes in Visions of Inequality: From the French Revolution to the End of the Cold War, economists attached little weight to economic distribution. Indeed, the very word “equality” possessed no political or economic meaning at all before the early seventeenth century. Economic injustice, when considered, was assessed based on relations among (for Marx, warfare between) the classes. Consequently, only recently have we acquired much specific knowledge, looking backward, about the distribution of wealth throughout history.

Like all modern social scientists, Alfani and Milanovic have access to datasets and computing power that would astonish classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. They make use of these advantages to achieve a clearer understanding of the past, tracing inequality through the histories of Western Europe and the United States. Alfani begins his timeline in the Middle Ages (with the occasional flashback to antiquity and prehistory); Milanovic picks up the story in the eighteenth century. Today’s dry mathematical analysis of income and wealth shares may lack Ricardo’s eloquence or Marx’s fervor. But it gets right to the point in a way that theory and exhortation do not. We no longer have to wonder how unequally wealth and income were distributed in past eras; we can measure it.

In the beginning, inequality was driven by the bonds of family. Hunter-gatherer societies living at near-subsistence didn’t accumulate much, Alfani writes, but families passed on what little they had to the children. Next came land; the advent of agriculture depended on possession of land and animals of varying quality and quantity, cultivated more effectively by some than by others. Then came government, which allocated privileges and burdens unequally. Under the Roman Empire, the largest fortunes grew eightyfold between the second century BCE and the first century CE. During the latter period, the richest Roman (excluding emperors) was probably, per Alfani, one Marcus Antonius Pallas. Pallas was a former slave who made good. Less uplifting is that he got rich through government service, as treasurer to Emperors Claudius and then Nero. Pallas’s personal wealth grew so large that Nero eventually had him poisoned so that he could seize much of it. Variations on this practice persisted through the Middle Ages, with kings by divine right alternately building, borrowing from, and expropriating the fortunes of their richest citizens (typically nobles).

Wealth inequality was, it’s usually presumed, worse during the Middle Ages than it is today, and by many obvious measures, including the vast fortunes of Rufus, King William, and other medieval tycoons, it was. The richest person who ever lived, many say, was the fourteenth-century West African monarch Mansa Musa, who possessed nearly half the gold known to exist in the Eastern Hemisphere—putting in the shade the fabled King Croesus, who ruled Lydia during the sixth century BCE. Poverty, meanwhile, imposed a level of deprivation unimaginable to most of the world’s poor today (though not, sadly, to someone living at subsistence level in today’s poorest nations, according to a 2010 study led by Stephen Broadberry of the University of Warwick). Class divisions during the Middle Ages and Renaissance were not a matter merely of wealth; they were sharpened by sumptuary laws that dictated, for instance, what commoners were permitted to wear—in France, no golden embroidery or silk—or what sort of parties commoners could host to celebrate a baptism, including how many guests could attend and the value of presents one could accept.

The best way to calculate wealth, Milanovic has argued previously, is not by accumulated riches but by how many workers those riches can employ. By this measure, the richest person who ever lived may be the Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim, whose wealth at its peak could employ 440,000 Mexicans. But in our globalized economy, Milanovic suggested, a better measure might be how much labor a wealthy person can buy in a similarly wealthy economy. By that measure, the richest person who ever lived was John D. Rockefeller, whose wealth at its peak could employ 116,000 Americans at a time when the United States was the richest nation in the world.

Milanovic’s method drew on the labor theory of value, according to which (as Smith explained in The Wealth of Nations) a commodity’s value “is equal to the quantity of labor which it enables him to purchase or command.” But in our dismal epoch of offshoring, automation, and the looming incursion of artificial intelligence, as tech giants like Meta and Google consciously seek to employ the fewest number of homo sapiens, how much longer will it make sense to measure wealth through units of labor? It’s a question to confound Smith, Ricardo, or Marx (by whose “surplus value” theory capitalists expropriate from labor—a construct that depends on there being actual workers to steal from).

What’s inarguable is that medieval Europe was more egalitarian by the mathematical measure that’s captured popular imagination today. That’s the share of a nation’s combined wealth owned by the top one percent in the wealth distribution. In the United States, the top one percent—about 1.7 million people—possesses 35.4 percent of the nation’s total wealth, according to a website maintained by the Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. By comparison, in 1300, in the Florentine city of Prato, the top one percent possessed 29.2 percent of the city’s total wealth, according to property-tax records. Elsewhere in the Florentine state, in the village of Poggibonsi, the top one percent possessed 19.9 percent of the total wealth. In the Sabaudian state, an area that corresponds to present-day Piedmont, the top one percent possessed 22.3 percent of the wealth. These percentages, Alfani writes, approximate wealth concentration today in the now-unified Republic of Italy, which (unlike these city-state predecessors) is governed democratically.

The commercial revolution of the eleventh century (and, later, colonization) ramped up trade, creating maritime republics like Genoa and Venice and a merchant/entrepreneurial class that depended on noble patronage but also rivaled and sometimes exceeded the nobility in wealth. Eventually, the accumulation of surpluses grew sufficiently widespread that the field of economics had to be invented to make sense of how to manage it.

The founders of the discipline of political economy were a group led by François Quesnay (1694–1774), personal physician to Madame de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s chief mistress (an actual royal post in prerevolutionary France). Initially, Quesnay’s group was called les économistes (the first time, Milanovic writes, that label was applied), but eventually they were known as les physiocrates.

Physiocrats dealt with the commercial revolution and the rise of international trade mostly by ignoring it. Instead, they focused on the agricultural economy. Given the subsequent unpleasantness of the French Revolution, you won’t be surprised to learn that in Quesnay’s time inequality was outrageously high. Using the modern Gini index, which measures broad-based inequality, Milanovic puts inequality in prerevolutionary France a bit higher than England’s and comparable to what you find in present-day Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Brazil. But given that France had a much lower mean income (accounting for inflation) than those Latin American countries, French inequality avant la guerre was actually much worse: 70 percent of maximum feasible inequality, or the level at which only a tiny elite lives above subsistence level. The comparable figure today for Brazil is 55 percent.

In Quesnay’s scheme, there were four classes: workers (i.e., farmworkers and other low-skilled laborers), who earned 50 to 60 percent of mean wages; the self-employed (farmworkers growing grapes on their own land, and also artisans and craftsmen), who earned from 80 percent of the mean to (for artisans and craftsman) more than double the mean; “capitalists” (tenant farmers), who earned nearly three times the mean; and the “elite” (landlords, clergy, government administrators). This last group earned less than the “capitalists” and was on par financially with the artisans and craftsmen (though landlords were nobles and therefore well above every other group in political power).

One way you can tell economics was in its infancy is that, as Milanovic notes, Quesnay’s categories were a distributional muddle. The only economically distinct class was the workers at the bottom. The “elite” category mixed low-wage government bureaucrats and low-wage priests with rich aristocrats, while the self-employed class mixed moderately paid grape growers with much wealthier artisans and craftsmen. Still, a few important insights emerged. One was that the best indicator of a nation’s wealth was the condition of its workers. Reducing workers’ consumption, Quesnay warned, “would reduce the reproduction and the revenue of the nation.” That went against the prevailing consensus, which measured the health of a country according to the wealth of the rich (or, as today’s conservatives would call them, “job creators”). Another insight was that the “capitalists,” or tenant farmers, contributed at least as much to society as the aristocratic rentiers who furnished the land but did not cultivate it. Quesnay said French law ought to treat tenant farmers as co-owners, a quite radical notion that of course was ignored.

After Quesnay, in Milanovic’s survey, come Adam Smith (1723–1790) and David Ricardo (1772–1823). Like Quesnay, both wrote during periods of rapidly rising inequality at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Smith and Ricardo reduced Quesnay’s untidy four classes to a more recognizable three: worker, capitalist, and landlord, with the latter two vying for dominance.

Contemporary liberals often argue that Smith was not so blindly committed to the pursuit of self-interest as conservatives imagine him to be; they cite Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments to show he believed society was governed by a strong sense of mutual sympathy. But Milanovic turns the tables, arguing that Smith the economist is actually more left-wing than Smith the moral philosopher. Published in 1759—17 years before The Wealth of Nations—The Theory of Moral Sentiments makes Smith sound absurdly complacent about the status quo when he counsels that greater wealth doesn’t bring happiness, and that “the beggar who suns himself by the side of the highway possesses that security which kings are fighting for.” In The Wealth of Nations, Smith criticizes government interference in the economy, but he also criticizes capitalists for conspiring to fix prices, for creating monopolies, for committing plunder, and for buying political influence. He is no Dr. Pangloss.

Quesnay elevated workers and capitalists, but not landlords. Smith elevated workers and landlords, but not capitalists. Smith thought capitalists were too slow to recognize the value of paying high wages. “Where wages are high,” Smith wrote, “we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious, than when they are low.” As Milanovic describes it, in the Smithian universe, societal progress brings increased consumption and raises the value of land, enabling workers to earn more, but squeezing capitalists’ profit. That was fine with Smith. “Our merchants and master manufacturers,” Smith wrote, may complain about high wages, but “they say nothing concerning the bad effects of high profits; they are silent with regard to the pernicious effects of their own gains.”

But in the quarter-century that followed publication of The Wealth of Nations, pretty much the opposite of what Smith sought occurred. The income of capitalists grew nearly four times faster than that of workers and landlords. The results for income distribution were mixed. Labor lost ground to capital, but at the same time the richest segment, the landed aristocracy, lost ground to the rising capitalists.

Enter David Ricardo, who disdained rentier nobles. “The interest of the landlord,” Ricardo wrote, “is always opposed to the interest of every other class in the community.” Workers, Ricardo presumed, would always earn at subsistence level, and landlords’ earnings were fixed by the price of production (Ricardo was interested in corn). It was the capitalist who determined how much production there would be, and therefore, in Ricardo’s view, it was the capitalist who made the economy go. To Ricardo, profits should not, as Smith suggested, be low; they should be high, to enable further investment and further production. Not coincidentally, Ricardo was himself a capitalist—a fantastically successful investor (he also sat in Parliament) who, Milanovic writes, was very possibly “the richest economist ever.”

A generation later came Marx (1818–1883), who in effect said to Quesnay, Smith, and Ricardo: You’re all right. Landlords are bad, and capitalists are bad, too. By the mid–nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had blurred the two categories sufficiently that Marx called them both capitalists and declared them the enemy for denying workers control of the means of production.

In Marx’s time, changes to income distribution within the United Kingdom were complex. On the one hand, Milanovic observes, the top one percent possessed 60 percent of the nation’s wealth—a larger share probably than ever before “and certainly afterward.” Capital’s share was growing, and labor’s share was shrinking. On the other hand, wage growth, which had been virtually nonexistent through the second half of the eighteenth century, accelerated dramatically starting around 1820, and had risen somewhere between 30 and 50 percent by the time Marx published the first volume of Das Kapital 47 years later. Even though capital’s share of the pie expanded, the pie itself grew so fast that workers prospered.

Observing this phenomenon with amusement, in 1858 Friedrich Engels wrote that England was acquiring “a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie.” The working class was living better than it had in most people’s living memory. Engels and, later, Vladimir Lenin attributed this to colonial plunder. Engels’s collaborator Marx judged both cause and effect immaterial. Excessive interest in matters of economic distribution, he wrote, was “vulgar socialism,” a distraction from the capitalist class’s expropriation of the working class’s surplus value. Marx didn’t want to tinker with the capitalists’ share; he wanted to eliminate the capitalist class altogether.

It fell to Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) to move economics beyond the study of class dynamics and elevate the study of economic distribution to its present importance. The son of an Italian marquis and admired by Benito Mussolini, Pareto was no liberal idealist. Writing from Lausanne, Switzerland, at the turn of the twentieth century—the height of the gilded Belle Epoque—Pareto argued that income distribution showed “a remarkable stability” over time, in different locales, and under different types of government. Change policies toward labor or capital however you liked, Pareto said, and the result would always be the same. This has been passed down as the maxim that 20 percent of the population always possesses 80 percent of the wealth.

Milanovic ascribes more subtlety to Pareto’s thinking than the 80–20 formulation permits, but he nonetheless concludes that Pareto was wrong that wealth distribution was immutable—wrong in his own time, and even more wrong in the decades after his death. But give Pareto credit for recognizing that economic inequality was something that could and should be measured carefully and regarded as important in itself. (Another Fascist fellow traveler to whom latter-day distributionists owe a debt is Pareto’s countryman Corrado Gini, who invented the Gini index a decade or so later.)

Milanovic ends with Simon Kuznets (1901–1985), who after World War II noticed that income distribution was growing more equal not only in the United States but in other advanced industrial economies—the very thing Pareto had said could never happen. This reversed the trend toward growing inequality that had prevailed during the Industrial Revolution. Kuznets concluded that inequality followed a U-shaped curve, growing during the disruptive early period of industrialization but then shrinking after it matured. At some point, an industrial democracy would become so rich that productivity differences between industry and agriculture would diminish, a surplus of capital would drive down the rate of return, and society could afford to set aside funds for pensions and government programs like unemployment insurance. That was the mid-twentieth-century reality.

It didn’t last. In the late 1970s, incomes started growing more unequal, a trend that persists to this day. It took a while for economists to notice, partly, Milanovic says, because Kuznets had lulled them into complacency. But in 2014, Thomas Piketty came along to argue, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that r > g, where r is growth in capital and g is labor income or, more broadly, growth in the broader economy. The result is an ever-increasing concentration of wealth. The process has been reversed periodically by cataclysmic world events like the Black Death of the fourteenth century, which created a labor shortage that benefited peasants, and the two world wars of the twentieth century, which extinguished capital and finished off the aristocracy. But growing wealth inequality always resumed afterward. A cataclysmic event today on the scale of the two world wars would, of course, likely finish off human civilization altogether, leaving its impact on economic distribution moot.

Is Piketty right that today’s economy is a rentier’s paradise where capital accumulates faster than labor income? There are days when I compare my paycheck to my 401(k) and think he may be on to something. Neither is anything to write home about, but over the past three decades my retirement savings outpaced inflation and my salary did not. I am nobody’s idea of a shrewd investor, and, like every other journalist on the planet, I’m a much more productive worker than was possible 30 years ago thanks to the World Wide Web. Yet my r beats the crap out of my g.

Milanovic and Alfani both accept Piketty’s formulation, but they reach opposite conclusions about its permanence. In Alfani’s view, “wealth concentration is a continuous process that has progressed almost without pause from ancient Babylon to the Middle Ages through to today.” It’s proceeded at different paces at different times—primogeniture was introduced to check the dissipation of feudal estates—but there’s no reason, Alfani says, to believe it will ever stop. Milanovic, on the other hand, suggests that the 1980s may have ushered in another U-shaped curve as the industrial economy was displaced by a postindustrial economy. “With passage of time and increased competition,” Milanovic writes, “there might be a dissipation of the high rents accruing to the companies and company owners who lead the technological change.”

I’m skeptical of both conclusions. The march toward concentrated wealth, it seems to me, is neither inevitable nor dependent on the shape of a curve on a graph. It’s determined, in a democracy, by political choices, and we can start making different choices tomorrow. The economics profession has always been wary of free will, except insofar as it permits the pursuit of rational self-interest. But a popular movement to reverse economic inequality emerged over the last dozen years, and it may effect change much sooner than the authors of these two enormously stimulating and informative books dare imagine. We do right to study economic distribution with the mathematic rigor that little interested the worldly philosophers before Pareto. Reality is a better lodestar than theory. But neither history nor math can tell us how we’ll choose to address inequality in the unknowable future. That’s up to you and me.  

* An earlier version of this article mis-identified the location of the land King William gave Rufus and the castle that Rufus built there.