A Great Book In Critical Light: A Review Of Piketty’s Latest.

Review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital et idéologie by Antoinette Rijsenbilt and Kees van der Kooi. Journal of Economics, Theology and Religion 1, no. 1: 113-6.

Piketty addresses the issue of inequality in his new book ‘Capital et idéologie’ as a problem that poses a great risk of destabilizing modern societies and fueling social nativism. The bulk of reactions to this book concentrate on the proposed solution: a radical revision of property rights and redistribution of property. However, Antoinette Rijsenbilt and Kees van der Kooi focus in their review on two issues underlying Piketty’s analysis which have not been subject of a thorough review.

The first relates to the inequality issue. Piketty fails to address why economic equality is a moral concern; he sticks to a political ideology by stating that inequality is ultimately bad in itself—an assumption that he neither discusses nor argues for. The assumption that inequality tends to be detrimental to society is not necessarily true. The literature on income inequality and growth is inconclusive: there are empirical studies documenting a negative correlation between inequality and growth, as well as others finding positive signs. Researchers conclude that there is no basis in either theoretical or empirical economic research for a mechanic relationship between inequality and growth, and that this certainly can never be a guideline for economic policy.

The second issue concerns the question of the view of the human being. It is remarkable that Piketty omits an analysis of human behavior and a discussion of virtues and vices that drive human behavior. What is the implied image of the human being as agent in the new society of Piketty? Piketty’s caution for the danger of excessive inequality, however, must be taken seriously. At the same time, one should not forget that virtuous behavior is something that is often the effect of both intrinsic and extrinsic motives and triggers. Reducing income inequality as a moral idea opposes heterogeneity between individuals in their motivations and abilities. There is an extensive literature concerning the nature of fairness and the detrimental effects of a weaker link between performance/effort and rewards. Initiative, effort, trustworthiness, and creativity should have their reward—without being absolutized as the mere ground for enjoying possessions and goods. A policy that strives for justice and human dignity balances between intrinsic and extrinsic motives.

On the way to a society where property is never absolutized but is embedded in the relation to the human and non-human world, steps should be made, but not without wisdom and a solid idea of the human being.


Dr. Antoinette Rijsenbilt (researcher and program director at the Erasmus School of Accounting and Assurance)

Prof. dr. Kees van der Kooi (emeritus professor at VU Amsterdam and distinguished lecturer at the Erasmus School of Accounting and Assurance)

Read the full reviewing article in the first issue of JETR: https://journaletr.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/jetr-2021-115_1.pdf

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