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.