Should the Rich Be Taxed? People Are More Concerned about Whether the Rich Are Greedy Than Whether They Worked Their Way Up!

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Syeda ShahBano Ijaz, covers the new article by Kristina Jessen Hansen, Aalborg University, “Greed, Envy, and Admiration: The Distinct Nature of Public Opinion about Redistribution from the Rich”.

Why is rising inequality in nations not accompanied with an increase in redistributive practices? Conventional wisdom suggests that as inequality increases in a democratic system and the median wage decreases, support for redistribution should increase. However, Hansen’s study of public support for redistribution paints a more complex picture. She proposes it is important to study redistribution as a two-dimensional research problem that should focus both on why people choose to give to the poor, as well as when they support taxing the rich. Through a set of surveys, she finds that the emotions driving support for taxing the rich are quite distinct from those that affect support for giving to the poor. People are more likely to endorse social welfare policies when they believe that the poor are hardworking; on the other hand, people are more likely to oppose taxing the rich if they consider the rich to be more prosocial i.e., generous, and not greedy.

The discourse on redistribution is closely concerned with issues of fairness and deservingness. The poor’s effort matters because it is a metric of their deservingness: their lack of achievement is attributed to bad luck and unwieldy circumstances, justifying welfare transfers to them. Even though people’s compassion affects their help-giving behavior, this compassion is conditional on effort and does not reward the poor for lack of trying. While Hansen agrees with this argument, she argues that effort is not the key characteristic that determines opinions about taxing the rich. Therefore, she suggests that a comprehensive understanding of opinions on redistribution should simultaneously study factors that affect support for social welfare and factors that affect support for taxation, claiming that these factors are not the same. Instead of effort (which determines whether the rich deserve their resources or not), she posits that people care more about the prosocial intentions of the rich: are they greedy or are they generous? Other emotions that can affect support for taxation include admiration and envy. Admiration of the rich can help justify their possession of greater resources and decrease support for taxation; contrarily, envy of what the rich have can increase support for taxation.

To study people’s perceptions of the rich’s prosocial intentions (greed or generosity), and the emotions of admiration and envy, Hansen examines data from four separate samples collected from two very different welfare systems: Denmark and the United States. Even though the levels of inequality and redistribution differ vastly across these two countries, she claims that the psychological motivations affecting individuals’ opinions on redistribution should persist irrespective of context. Her empirical design comprises two nationally representative samples of Denmark, one nationally representative sample of the U.S. and finally, an online convenience sample of U.S. respondents.  In one of her samples, she includes a vignette experiment that manipulates cues regarding prosocial intentions and effort. Briefly, the experiment randomly assigns each respondent to hear one version of a fictitious story about a villager; the versions differ on whether the villager is rich or poor, whether they are hardworking or lazy and whether they are antisocial or prosocial. Respondents are then asked if they would support either taxing the person (if they are rich) or providing welfare to the person (if they are poor).

The findings are striking: data collected in surveys confirm that effort appears to matter more in the case of the poor while prosocial intentions matter more for the rich. The psychological motivations associated with opinions on redistribution are similar across Danes and Americans: perceptions of prosocial intentions are more strongly associated with opposing taxation for the rich than perceptions of their effort. On the other hand, perceptions that the poor make an effort are more strongly associated with support for redistribution than perceptions of the poor’s prosocial characteristics. These findings are confirmed by the experimental results. For those presented with a vignette about a poor villager, effort is twice as likely as prosocial characteristics to affect support for redistribution. For those who hear a story about a rich villager, prosocial characteristics are twice as likely to determine opposition to taxation than effort.

“It may not be enough, or even politically possible, to adjust macroeconomic policies to reduce inequality without first understanding what drives support for redistribution.” The author’s hypotheses regarding envy, admiration and compassion are also broadly confirmed. She finds that envy for the rich increases support for taxation, while admiration decreases it. Conversely, envy and admiration matter little in the case of the poor, while compassion is strongly associated with support for redistribution to the poor.

This study provides important nuance to why rising inequality doesn’t immediately translate into higher support for redistribution. Even as the proportion of poor people rises, feelings of admiration for the rich might stop them from mobilizing for higher taxation. Similarly, people might be less supportive of redistribution if they do not consider the poor to be deserving. Accounting for these individual perceptions might be important in addressing inequality in a world that is increasingly leaning to the political right. It may not be enough, or even politically possible, to adjust macroeconomic policies to reduce inequality without first understanding what drives support for redistribution.


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