Do People Care About Inequality?

A question in the International Social Survey Programme’s 1999 survey offered respondents pictorial illustrations of various income distributions and asked “What do you think the distribution in your country ought to be like — which do you prefer?” The choices were depicted as follows:

A relatively small share, fewer than 20% in most countries, said they preferred type A, B, or C. This isn’t surprising; each of those three has a large share of the population at the bottom. The bulk of respondents selected either type D or type E.

D and E are identical in their population shares at the bottom. The difference between them is that D has a larger share in the middle, whereas E has a larger share at the top. Average income is higher in E. Inequality is lower in D.

Interestingly, more respondents in the ISSP survey preferred D than preferred E. The results are strikingly similar across countries, even among nations that seemingly have very different orientations toward affluence and equality.

I wouldn’t go so far as to conclude from this that people tend to value low inequality over high incomes. Other ways of posing the question might yield different results. But it does suggest that inequality matters to people.

8 thoughts on “Do People Care About Inequality?

  1. On the issue of inequality

    It might be easy to interpret these responses of indicating some kind of moral sense of justice in people preferences.

    I think an alternate reading of the results would be that given that the respondents were choosing a distribution independent of their position on it, it might be that instead of some sense of justice that minimises inequality, they fear the possibility of being low on the distribution and so choose the one that instead minimises the chance of themselves being poor(er).

    Secondly, given that feeling rich is defined by contrast to those around us (e.g. a millionaire in the company of billionaires doesn’t seem as rich as he would in the company of the homeless) and the way it seems that resentment of those richer than oneself is an issue no matter what actual income one has, there is also the issue of: if I can’t be rich then he shouldn’t be either.

    These two combine to give a selfish reasoning for favouring equality rather than some altruistic feeling.

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  4. My first-glance response was D cause it seemed fairest. Several seconds later I ridiculed myself, because E is clearly more prosperous. (Assuming each tier is an absolute income level/range, which the setup implies.) I’m kind of disappointed if not surprised to see that Caplan’s right about irrational voters.

    It’s hard to really judge, though, with figures floating in space like this, timelessly.

    If it could be demonstrated that any of these distributions caused the overall figure to float up significantly faster relative to the others–that the shape is necessary for some helium producer(s) to operate efficiently–that figure might be preferable despite (some greater level of) immediate inequality.

    But the best research I’ve found says that the correlation between inequality and faster growth is pretty small (especially in developed countries). And of course the small correlation that does show up, doesn’t demonstrate causation. Fast growth could be causing the inequality, not vice versa.

    Plus, E might promote negative externalities which might not make their impacts felt on a country’s overall prosperity for many decades.

    But still. Given the terms of the query, E is the obvious answer and it’s sad that only 20-30% recognize that.

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