The Four Horsemen

The Four Horsemen

Walter Scheidel, a historian and professor of history at Stanford University, is known for his work on social and economic history, particularly on the topic of wealth inequality and its historical trends. In his book titled “The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century,” Scheidel presents a theory that the reduction of inequality throughout history has been primarily achieved through violent and disruptive events. He refers to these leveling forces as theFour Horsemen of Leveling.

War: One of the Horsemen is war, which has historically led to the destruction of wealth and assets, particularly among the wealthy and powerful. Wars have often caused significant upheaval, redistributing resources and disrupting existing social hierarchies.

Revolution: The second Horseman is revolution. Scheidel argues that revolutions, whether political, social, or economic, have been instrumental in challenging existing power structures and redistributing resources.

State Collapse: The third Horseman is state collapse. When empires or states fall apart, it often results in a breakdown of existing social and economic institutions, allowing for potential redistribution of resources.

Pandemics: The fourth Horseman is pandemics or severe epidemics. Large-scale disease outbreaks have historically caused widespread mortality, which, in turn, has had implications for wealth distribution and social organization.

According to Scheidel, these Four Horsemen represent the most significant and impactful forces that have historically contributed to reducing inequality in societies. He argues that these events, while often causing immense human suffering, have been powerful in reshaping economic and social structures, leading to more equitable distributions of wealth. Scheidel’s work is based on a long-term historical analysis of various societies and how inequality has been shaped over millennia.


“So distribution should undo excess,

And each man have enough”   

Shakespeare, King Lear

These events can lead to a redistribution of resources and assets, thereby potentially addressing some of the excesses and leveling out wealth disparities in a society. However, it’s important to note that these leveling forces often come at a significant cost, as they are accompanied by human suffering, loss of life, and social upheaval.

The Four Riders of the Apocalypse (1498) by Albrecht Durer – Source


Illustration from the Beatus Facundus (1047 AD), a “Commentary on the Apocalypse”   – Source


Illustration from the Beatus Valladolid (ca. 970 AD), a “Commentary on the Apocalypse” – Source

While these events can lead to a more equitable distribution of resources to some extent, they are not desirable methods to achieve social and economic justice. Many societies and policymakers strive to find more peaceful and humane ways to address inequality and ensure that each individual has enough to meet their basic needs.

Efforts to achieve a more just and equitable society typically involve a combination of policies and interventions, such as progressive taxation, social safety nets, education and job training programs, affordable healthcare, and access to basic services. The goal is to ensure that everyone has access to a decent standard of living and opportunities for social and economic mobility, without resorting to violent or disruptive events.

Promoting inclusive economic growth, providing equal access to opportunities, and implementing fair policies are some of the key approaches to address wealth inequality and ensure that each person has enough to live a dignified life. It’s essential to consider the well-being of society as a whole and find ways to create a more just and prosperous world without relying on the destructive forces of the Four Horsemen.

Can a world without horsemen exist ? 

Yes, a world without the Four Horsemen of Leveling, as described by Walter Scheidel, is not only possible but desirable. The Four Horsemen, which include war, revolution, state collapse, and pandemics, are events that historically have been associated with reducing extreme wealth inequality. However, these events also come with significant human suffering and destruction.

A world without these destructive forces would ideally be one where societies proactively address inequality through peaceful and equitable means. It would involve implementing policies and systems that promote social and economic justice, provide equal opportunities for all, and ensure that basic needs are met for every individual.

Creating a world without the Four Horsemen requires a concerted effort by governments, institutions, and individuals to work together towards common goals. This may involve:

  1. Social Safety Nets: Implementing robust social safety nets to support those in need and prevent extreme poverty during economic downturns or other crises.
  2. Progressive Taxation: Ensuring that wealth and income are fairly distributed through progressive taxation, where those with higher incomes contribute proportionally more.
  3. Access to Education and Healthcare: Providing equal access to quality education and healthcare, which are essential for social mobility and well-being.
  4. Inclusive Economic Growth: Fostering inclusive economic growth that benefits all segments of society, not just the wealthy few.
  5. Promoting Equality: Challenging discrimination and promoting equality in all its forms, including gender, race, ethnicity, and other social factors.
  6. Sustainable Development: Encouraging sustainable development practices that prioritize environmental conservation and long-term societal well-being.
  7. Global Cooperation: Encouraging international cooperation to address global challenges, such as poverty and climate change.

While achieving a world without the Four Horsemen is a challenging task, it is an aspirational goal that aligns with efforts to build a more just and compassionate society. It requires a collective commitment to addressing systemic issues and building a world where all individuals have the opportunity to thrive and live fulfilling lives.


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