Why people prefer unequal societies

Abstract

There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality. Both psychological research and decisions by policymakers would benefit from more clearly distinguishing inequality from unfairness.

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Figure 1: Income inequality in Europe and the United States, 1900–2010.
Figure 2: The actual US wealth distribution plotted against the estimated and ideal distributions across all respondents.
Figure 3: Percentage of children earning more than their parents, by birth year.

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Starmans, C., Sheskin, M. & Bloom, P. Why people prefer unequal societies. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0082 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-017-0082

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