Does Inequality Make People More Conservative?
Yes, according to some new research (pdf) from Nathan Kelly and Peter Enns. They rely on a a yearly measure of “policy mood” from 1952-2006. This is an omnibus summary of the public’s ideological leaning, liberal to conservative. (See the graph and corresponding Excel file at Jim Stimson’s homepage.) They also draw on a specific measure of the public’s support for welfare. The question is whether and how both measures respond to inequality.
Their first main finding: increases in inequality are associated with a conservative shift in mood and increasing opposition to welfare. (For more on why this would be true, see this paper (pdf) by Roland Benabou.)
Their second main finding: increases in inequality are associated with a conservative shift among both the wealthy and the poor.
One natural objection: perhaps some citizens, and especially poorer citizens, just do not realize that inequality has increased. But the third main finding contradicts this: over time, the poor are actually more likely to perceive increased inequality than do the wealthy.
Kelly and Enns offer some further speculation on why, in particular, the rich and poor respond in parallel to rising inequality:
“Despite the fact that parallelism is not driven by lack of information about income inequality, we think it is possible that the way information about distributional outcomes is framed is important. This idea is rooted in Gilens’s …argument is that during good economic times news stories focus on individualism (enhancing opposition to welfare) and during bad economic times stories emphasize people being down on their luck (enhancing support for welfare).Given that rising inequality since the 1970s has been driven in large part by gains at the top of the income distribution, media frames over this period may have increasingly emphasized stories of individualism, thus generating a negative link between rising inequality and public opinion liberalism. The decline in inequality prior to the 1970s, by contrast, was driven primarily by increasing incomes at the bottom of the income distribution and may have generated stories emphasizing government’s role in education and job creation. This could explain why declining inequality up to the 1970s pushed public opinion in a liberal direction.”
See the paper for some further discussion and appropriate caveats.
I haven’t been able to look at the paper yet, but unlike Thoma the observed result doesn’t puzzle me, though it dismays me. It’s what I bemoaned here. The receipt of rents[fn1] becomes its own vindication, above and beyond the ability to use those rents to directly buy influence. The greater the rents, the more self evident their justification becomes in the eyes of society. Why this is so I have no idea, especially since all those behavioural economics experiments (like the ultimatum game) keep throwing up pro-egalitarian results.
Still, I guess it’s reassuring on some level to know the myths that hustify inequality on this scale are not entirely fed to us by a cynical ruling class, we are more than capable of creating the myths ourselves.
[fn1] and yes, inequality on the scale we see in a given society is rent. I’m yet to see any reasonable attempt to show that incomes tens and hundreds of times larger than others are associated with higher productivity of the same magnitude – most attempts seem to accept that great income is evidence in itself of greater productivity. Self vindication of rents.