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Forget his personal wealth or that of his Finance Minister, his Liberal bagman from a billionaire family, his vacation on the Aga Khan's private island or his "Davos man" friends and colleagues: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to lead a frank discussion about the rich getting richer.

"We have to start telling the truth about income inequality in Canada," Mr. Trudeau said in a speech last week marking Canada's 150th birthday. "Because as uncomfortable as it might be to talk about it, it's a lot more uncomfortable to live it."

The example he used – that of a parent having to choose which one of their kids gets new boots this year while the chief executive officer of the company they work for gets million-dollar bonuses – seemed designed to stir indignation among the New Democratic voters the Liberals will need to win again in 2019 rather than to provide any deep insight into "the problem" of income inequality or what to do about it.

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Not that you can blame him. Some of the most brilliant minds on the planet have been grappling to come up with ways to reverse the increase in income inequality that many believe is behind rising populism in Western democracies. Spoiler alert: Most have concluded there are none, or none that are politically feasible.

While higher domestic taxes on the rich or free university tuition appeal to progressive instincts, they don't meaningfully move the dial on inequality. European societies, once models for smoothing out capitalism's rough edges, have run up against the limits of redistribution and regulation as the welfare state buckles under its own weight and smothers the animal spirits that help economies innovate and grow.

As Stanford University historian Walter Scheidel argues in The Great Leveler, his recent account of inequality through the ages: "There does not appear to be an easy way to vote, regulate or teach our way to significantly greater equality."

Indeed, if you buy into his thesis, the only surefire cures for inequality would appear to be far worse than the disease. "Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth." His depressing conclusion: "Great reductions in inequality were only ever brought forth in sorrow."

Prof. Scheidel's engrossing, if rather dense, book, which was a finalist for this year's $75,000 (U.S.) Cundill History Prize administered by McGill University, posits that it takes what he calls one of the Four Horsemen of Leveling to wipe out capital accumulation enough to equalize incomes in any society. Each is horrific to contemplate in its own right. War, revolution, state failure or plague typically leave millions dead in their wake. But they sure break up fortunes.

Mass mobilization warfare may be the most effective leveller of them all, as demonstrated by the First and Second World Wars. "The physical destruction wrought by industrial-scale warfare, confiscatory taxation, government intervention in the economy, inflation, disruption to global flows of goods and capital, and other factors all combined to wipe out elites' wealth and redistribute resources," Prof. Scheidel writes.

But the postwar Golden Age of rising incomes for all and the expansion of the welfare state looks like a historical blip. "Shocks abate," Prof. Scheidel notes. The (im)balance between labour and capital eventually returns to preshock levels and inequality reassumes its rising course.

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So it also goes for Communist revolutions. Russia and China – after expropriating and collectivizing wealth – are now among the most unequal societies on Earth. China, Prof. Scheidel notes, now has more dollar billionaires than the United States despite a much smaller economy.

As for pandemics, the Black Death made labour scarce, increasing its price, while owners of fixed capital were left holding largely surplus and soon-to-be worthless assets. "As a result, workers gained, and landlords and employers lost as real wages rose and rents fell."

The good news is that we live in a world where mass mobilization warfare, violent revolution, state failure and plague are rare or obsolete. The problem, if you can call it that, is that "no similarly potent alternative mechanisms of equalization have emerged."

That is the challenge facing Mr. Trudeau and like-minded politicians who take up the income-inequality mantle. In Canada, our basic redistributive infrastructure – progressive taxation, public education and a robust social safety net – achieves pretty much all that can be asked of it.

More meddling, to score political points or otherwise, won't tip the scales much if at all. But that is one historical truth about inequality Mr. Trudeau won't tell you.

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