What is Happening to Robin Hood? The Rise and Future of Progressive Redistribution

By Peter H. Lindert, Distinguished Professor of Economics, University of California, Davis1

A global history of how governments redistribute between rich and middle and poor is unfolding. While such an account can start from new measures of fiscal progressivity in the 21st century, several countries can trace the history of fiscal redistribution in detail back to the 1960s, and then in broad outline back to the start of the 20th century.

What that history shows is a global rise in progressivity over the last 100 years. Earlier regimes took less and gave less. Before 1910, redistribution favoured the poor at the expense of the rich only in Britain and the Netherlands during the French War era of 1792 to 1815, as much as it did in the still-penurious government budgets around 1910. Why had Robin Hood still not arrived as late as the dawn of the 20th century? Three restraints blocked progressivity before the 20th century: pervasive poverty (only small surpluses were available to redistribute), lack of fiscal capacity and the delay in extending voting power to the masses, including women.

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