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Vive La Révolution: Comparing U.S. Inequality with 1789 France

Thumbnail via Wikipedia Commons.

Picture a country plagued with financial struggle, unaffordable food, looting and rioting due to heavy disdain for the current regime, the wealthy exempt from paying taxes, and an expanding urban poor.

Thinking of the United States during the good year of our Lord 2020?

Think again. We’re talking late 18th century France.

Here’s a bit of context:

Lavish leaders and affluent aristocrats ran the country, owning a proportionally vast majority of the property in the nation and controlling a massive amount of wealth in the state. And of course, none of the nobility paid any taxes. Nor did clergy. The burden of public funding fell straight on the Third Estate: the lower 97% of the population that encompassed the upper working class and peasants.

There’s one problem though: that same lower 97% only held about 65% of the land in France. We’ll come back to this figure soon.

Not only was a burden of taxation upon the lowest earners, but loads of other problems ensued as well.

Because the French Revolution of 1789 didn’t have a single cause, it’s crucial for me to note here that income inequality wasn’t the only reason for tension. But it’s definitely an important factor to mention.

It’s also crucial to give an honorable mention to these factors when we’re working through a comparative study between 1789 France and 2020 U.S.A:

  • Astronomical costs for Versailles’ upkeep
  • Growing division between social classes
  • Poor harvests
  • Famine
  • Absolute monarchy
  • Incompetent leadership under Louis XVI, the king of France at the time.


When the nobility looked like this:

French aristocrats, c. 1774 Antoine-Jean Duclos – Le bal paré, via Wikipedia Commons.

Members of the working class were hardly able to feed themselves and their families.

And all of that mess led to a history-altering revolution.

Sound familiar? In a country with citizens like Jeff Bezos — and with more transparency regarding others’ wealth (or lack thereof) than ever — it’s almost impossible to ignore the absolute inequality of it all. At the moment, the United States is a place where a pandemic is hardly being taken care of. Where millions are out of work. Where our president acts like a toddler and is still somehow a billionaire. Where a hospital visit might bankrupt us. We’re feeling some of the exact same tension that was apparent in France over 200 years ago.

Inequality is definitely here. But is it really that bad?

Let’s Break Our Wealth Inequality Down.

Below, you’ll see a graphic representing wealth distribution in late 18th century France, with data provided by an article entitled “The Income Inequality of France in Historical Perspective” by Christian Morrisson and Wayne Snyder.

A couple of notes on this data: these are estimates. I’ve decided to use the author’s low estimates just to illustrate the best case scenario of income inequality during the late eighteenth century in France. In this graph, and the graph to follow, each quintile represents 20% of the population. The first quintile is the lowest-earning 20% of society, where the fifth quintile is the highest.

So, at this point, the lowest 40% of earners held about 14% of the wealth in France, where the top 20% of earners held a whopping 60%.

With me so far? Now, let’s take a look at wealth distribution in the United States in 2018, when the distribution was last recorded by the Census Bureau.

According to the Census Bureau’s 2018 report on Income and Poverty in the United States, and represented by my lovely graph, the lowest 40% of earners in the U.S. were worse off than 18th century French peasants. They held just 11.4% of wealth. And our top 20% of earners held 52% of it.

Not looking too good, right? Let’s take another measure of inequality into consideration.

The Gini Coefficient

According to our Lord and savior Investopedia, which can always interpret economic jargon better than I can, the Gini coefficient is “a measure of the distribution of income across a population. It is often used as a gauge of economic inequality, measuring income distribution or, less commonly, wealth distribution among a population. The coefficient ranges from 0 to 1, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality.”

Basically, the closer a state’s Gini coefficient is to 1, the more unequal its income distribution.

Let’s get into the numbers:

In 1789 France, the Gini coefficient of the nation was 0.59. Quite far from perfect equality, which is at 0.

In 2018, the United States had a Gini coefficient of 0.49. We’re definitely catching up, and still far from perfect equality.

Not a numbers person? 

Just take a look around. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the United States (and in the world) could potentially afford to end world hunger. The recently revamped White House rose gardens made headlines and drew outrage for costing $400 million. Members of Congress (not mentioning names, ahem, Nancy Pelosi) are flaunting $13 dollar tubs of ice cream inside of a fridge worth tens of thousands of dollars. Meanwhile, farm workers are struggling, food banks are overwhelmed, and loads of Americans are dealing with the perilous repercussions of COVID-19.

Is that really just?

We’ve seen that income distribution in the U.S. is dangerously approaching a level of inequality that helped lead to one of the most revolutionary, well, revolutions in modern history. But there’s one small problem:

Americans Just Can’t Overthrow the System. 

We love to joke about it. Just look at these protestors who put a guillotine in front of Jeff Bezos’ home.

But we won’t do it. It’s just not within our good American souls to collectively question the systems that have led us to this point. Questioning the validity of the American system is certainly, in my humble opinion, not something we’re really brought up to do.

But maybe, as a little treat — and for legal reasons this is a joke — are we storming the White House and busting out the guillotines or what?


Written by Marina Martinez

Arizonan student at the University of Edinburgh, dog lover, desert rat, meme aficionado and coffee enthusiast.

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