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Piketty’s New Controversial Theory

Research & Commentary
December 10, 2015

by Sheila Kennedy

Thomas Piketty recently spelled out a highly controversial theory about the cause of terrorism: economic inequality.

By Sheila Suess Kennedy



A year after his 700-page opus “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” stormed to the top of America’s best-seller lists, Thomas Piketty is out with a new argument about income inequality. It may prove more controversial than his book, which continues to generate debate in political and economic circles.

The new argument, which Piketty spelled out recently in the French newspaper Le Monde, is this: Inequality is a major driver of Middle Eastern terrorism, including the Islamic State attacks on Paris earlier this month — and Western nations have themselves largely to blame for that inequality.

The theory is relatively straightforward: because wealth in the Middle East is concentrated in countries having a relatively small a share of the population, the region is the most unequal on the planet.

Within those fabulously rich, sparsely-populated monarchies, a very few people control most of the wealth. Others, especially women and refugees, are kept in what Piketty describes as “a state of semi-slavery.” Picketty posits that it is those economic conditions that have provided justification for the region’s  jihadists–although he concedes that the casualties inflicted by the West’s wars have been a contributing factor.

The clear implication is that economic deprivation and the horrors of wars that benefited only a select few of the region’s residents have, mixed together, become what he calls a “powder keg” for terrorism across the region.

Piketty is particularly scathing when he blames the inequality of the region, and the persistence of oil monarchies that perpetuate it, on the West: “These are the regimes that are militarily and politically supported by Western powers, all too happy to get some crumbs to fund their [soccer] clubs or sell some weapons. No wonder our lessons in social justice and democracy find little welcome among Middle Eastern youth.”

If we take Piketty’s argument seriously, we can add terrorism to the list of deleterious consequences generated by inequality. (If the West did accept the analysis, it would suggest that economic measures, not tanks, are the armaments most likely to be effective in the fight against ISIS. ) Given current realities, everything from entrenched worldviews, the political clout and interests of arms dealers, and–in the U.S.– a political system that routinely categorizes countries unwilling to dance to our tune as “evil-doers,” I don’t see America accepting Piketty’s premise any time soon. If ever.

Even if we were able to forge a consensus on the need to ameliorate economic inequality–not just in the Middle East, but here at home–we would still have to confront thorny and contentious issues. It’s one thing to identify inequality as a central problem of our age; it is another to determine the precise point at which unequal distribution of life’s goods becomes inequitable and counterproductive. It is one thing to say “We need to fix this,” and quite another to figure out how.  (If communism taught us anything, it was how not to redistribute wealth.)

The challenge for our age is to figure out how to be fair without being stupid.

I think I’m going to reread John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice….

Sheila Suess Kennedy teaches law and public policy in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis. Her scholarly publications include eight books and numerous law review and journal articles. Kennedy, a frequent lecturer, public speaker, and contributor to popular periodicals, also writes a column for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She blogs at

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