Course outline

The purpose of this course is to explain the historical process that creates and to examine ways to reduce social inequality.

Economists characterise social inequality as a problem of distribution of societal resources. Social inequality is measured statistically by numeric scores on the scale 0-1, a score of 1 indicating that one person owns all assets and receives all income in a jurisdiction.

The course proposes that humans contest for sovereignty, and sovereignties distribute social benefit by the exclusionary agency of property systems. Possessive intention begins the demand for sovereignty, which leads to contest and appropriation, and institution of property systems allocating benefit and social control.

The contest for sovereignty is constitutive: it constitutes society. Sovereignty is determined by constitutional settlement. The constitutional settlement determines the durability and fairness of the political system.

Exclusion from benefit creates social inequality. All societies distribute social benefit unequally. The course explores the social, political, economic, cultural and intellectual history of different societies as they emerged in the last 3000 years, and identifies possible methods for countries to reduce social inequality.


Course readings

The first set of readings consists of classical legal and political thought beginning with Solon of Athens and concluding with Marcus Aurelius. The second part of the readings are concerned predominantly with Christian and Jewish thought in the 12 centuries after Christ, focusing on the moral teachings of the Church Fathers. These begin with Tertullian and conclude with writings of the church doctor St Thomas Aquinas on natural law and property.

The third part of the readings are constituted by works embodying or explaining Roman law (most importantly the 6th century Corpus Juris Civilis of the Emperor Justinian) and its reception into Europe. The list includes works explaining the history of the common law, notably William Blackstone’s 18th century Commentary on the Laws of England. Succeeding readings start with Thomas More’s Utopia, proceed to post-medieval writing on property and society, including the 17th century works of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

The list includes 18th and 19th century works on property and rights, including writings of Rousseau, Adam Smith, Jefferson, Paine, Proudhon and Marx. Readings conclude with the works of certain 20th (and 21st) century thinkers on philosophy, economics, psychology and law, including Freud, Jung, Durkheim, Weber, Marshall, Veblen, Keynes, von Mises, Hayek, Wittgenstein, Sartre, Berlin, Galbraith, Lacan, Hart, Dworkin, Friedman, Piketty.

The work of Noam Chomsky on universal grammar, and derivative material on possessive grammar are listed. The course examines cultural writings ranging from Greek tragedies of the 4th century BC to social novelists such as Hugo and Dostoyevsky, and diverse works of authors interested in the historical development of societies.


This course will be coordinated by Benedict Atkinson.

Having spent several years working as a government advisor before becoming an academic, most of Ben’s academic work has been concentrated in the field of intellectual property. His strongest research interest is focused on social inequality, which is closely connected with the allocation of proprietary rights. Ben notes that the study of IP helps us to understand how rights are allocated in ways that may create social disadvantage (conventional narrative about IP rights asserts that these rights are socially beneficial in effect). Ben has  written and co-authored  a number of books concerned with IP rights, e.g. A Short History of Copyright. Ben also teaches administrative and constitutional law, and contract law.  He has a particular interest in reading history, and thinks that understanding history allows us to save ourselves from ourselves.