Toward a New Radical Reformism
Anthony Atkinson occupies a unique place among economists. During the past half-century, in defiance of prevailing trends, he managed to place the question of inequality at the center of his work while demonstrating that economics is first and foremost a social and moral science. In his new book, Inequality: What Can Be Done?—more personal than his previous ones and wholly focused on a plan of action—he provides us with the broad outlines of a new radical reformism.
There’s something reminiscent of the progressive British social reformer William Beveridge in Atkinson’s reformism, and the reader ought to enjoy his way of presenting his ideas. The legendarily cautious English scholar reveals a more human side, plunges into controversy, and sets forth a list of concrete, innovative, and persuasive proposals meant to show that alternatives still exist, that the battle for social progress and equality must reclaim its legitimacy, here and now. He proposes universal family benefits financed by a return to progressive taxation—together, they are intended to reduce British inequality and poverty from American levels to European ones.
He also argues for guaranteed public-sector jobs at a minimum wage for the unemployed, and democratization of access to property ownership via an innovative national savings system, with guaranteed returns for the depositors. There will be inheritance for all, achieved by a capital endowment at age eighteen, financed by a more robust estate tax; an end to the English poll tax—a flat-rate tax for local governments—and the effective abandonment of Thatcherism. The effect is exhilarating. Witty, elegant, profound, this book should be read: it brings us the finest blend of what political economy and British progressivism have to offer.
To fully appreciate this book and its proposals, we should first place it in the larger setting of Atkinson’s career, for he has mainly produced the work of an infinitely cautious and rigorous scholar. Between 1966 and 2015, Atkinson published fifty or so books and more than 350 scholarly articles. They have brought about a profound transformation in the broader field of international studies of the distribution of wealth, inequality, and poverty. Since the 1970s, he has also written major theoretical papers, devoted in particular to the theory of optimal taxation, and these contributions alone would justify several Nobel Prizes. But Atkinson’s most important and profound work has to do with the historical and empirical analysis of inequality, carried out with respect to theoretical models that he deploys with impeccable mastery and utilizes with caution and moderation. With his distinctive approach, at once historical, empirical, and theoretical; with his extreme rigor and his unquestioned probity; with his ethical reconciliation of his roles as researcher in the social sciences and citizen of, respectively, the United Kingdom, Europe, and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.