Early Views Of Distribution Of Wealth

Early Views of the Distribution of Wealth

Attention to problems of distribution appears relatively late in the development of economic ideas. While ideas on production of wealth and the process of exchange find a place in the writings of early philosophers and ecclesiastics, distribution was not so honored. The relative simplicity of economic life and the social stratification which marked society in those days provide a rea­sonable explanation for the lack of importance attached to this phase of economics. One would not expect a society such as early Greece to be concerned with distribution, since the citizens of the Greek city states derived their livelihood from the ownership of farms tilled by slaves. Trade and manual labor were outside the sphere of respectability; hence the financial condition of those who followed such occupations was of little consequence. In the declining years of classical civilization—that is, from the Second to the Fifth centuries A.D., changes in the distribution of wealth caused serious upheavals in the economic and political life of Greece and Rome. The income from family lands proved no match for the greater affluence of merchants, traders, and finan­ciers. The declining fortunes of the original ruling class forced the people of this class to loosen their hold upon social and politi­cal privileges, opening the way for the acquisition of power by financial oligarchies.

The growing importance of money; the blurring of old traditional class lines; the crystallization of new social and economic classes; and the shifting of political authority from hereditary family groups to the nouveau riche—all these factors caused alarm among men of affairs as well as among the philosophers. Their reaction, however, was not an investigation of the economic principles of distribution. They attempted on the one hand to find some political means of adjusting the class differences and of maintaining some stability in a world which ap­peared to be crumbling at their feet; and on the other hand they sought for some principle of personal living that would give them security and satisfaction in spite of the disorganization around them. Hence, there is little in the ancient economic writings that has any bearing upon the economic aspects of distribution.