The critique of capital in the 21st century: in search of the macroeconomic foundations of inequalities


By Guillaume Allègre and Xavier Timbeau

In his book Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty offers a critical analysis of the dynamics of capital accumulation. The book is at the level of its very high ambitions: it addresses a crucial issue, it draws on a very substantial statistical effort that sheds new light on the dynamics of distribution, and it advances public policy proposals. Thomas Piketty combines the approach of the great classical authors (Smith, Ricardo, Marx, Walras) with impressive empirical work that was inaccessible to his illustrious predecessors.

Thomas Piketty shows the mechanisms pushing towards a convergence or divergence in the distribution of wealth and highlights how the strength of divergence is generally underestimated: if the return on capital (r) is higher than economic growth (g), which historically has almost always been the case, then it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate built-up wealth, and the concentration of capital will reach extremely high levels: “The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier , more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labour. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future.”

The book thus seeks the basis for inequality in macroeconomics (r> g), whereas the usual suspects are found at the microeconomic level. In OFCE Working document no. 2014-06 [in French], we argue that this macro-foundation for inequality is not convincing and that the same facts can be interpreted using a different causality, in which inequality arises from the operation of (imperfect) markets, scarcity rents and the establishment of property rights. It is not r>g that turns entrepreneurs into rentiers, but the establishment of mechanisms that allow the extraction of a perpetual rent that explains the historical constancy of r>g.

This different interpretation of the same phenomena has consequences for public policy. The ex post taxation of capital, where necessary, can only be a second-level choice: first the constraints of scarcity have to be removed and the definition of property rights and the rights of owners and non-owners must be defined. Are landlords going to be free to charge any rent they like? Can they limit other construction around their property? How much protection is labour law going to give workers? To what extent can they influence managerial decisions within the company? In our opinion it is the answers to these questions that determine the relationship between economic growth and the return on capital, as well as capital’s weight in the economy. The point is to prevent owners of capital from exploiting a favourable balance of power. In this respect, while its shape has changed, capital in the twenty-first century is much like it was in the late nineteenth century. Dealing with it will require more than a tax on capital.

For more information, see: “La critique du capital au XXIe siècle : à la recherche des fondements macroéconomiques des inégalités”, Document de travail de l’OFCE, n°2014-06.