Economic Inequality Matters: Reflections on Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century


  • Elaine Coburn Centre d'intervention and d'analyse sociologique (CADIS)-EHESS/American University-Paris



capital, economic inequality, epistemology, exploitation, justice, Marx, Piketty


In Capital in the 21st Century, Piketty takes a central liberal claim about economic inequality seriously and asks: does capitalism reward merit? If true, we would expect salaries, presumably rooted in the reward of merit in the workplace, to be more important to personal wealth than inherited money and property, which is just luck. He concludes that capitalism does not reward merit more than inherited wealth. Piketty suggests that this is at once a political and moral problem. As such, it cannot be resolved through economics alone, especially in the profession’s current incarnation, characterized by mathematical fetishization. Instead, all of the social sciences and humanities will necessarily be mobilized to develop a full description and analysis of economic inequalities, which must then be made a central question for broad, public debate. This is an important epistemological and political argument, although Capital in the 21st Century has critical weaknesses, including an undertheorized empiricism, a tendency to treat economic inequality as a matter of money and not as a social relationship, and a failure to grasp how class, gender, race and age come together in social relationships of exploitation (and not merely statistical relationship of inequality).