Who opposes redistribution the most?

Not necessarily who you’d think.

Instead of opposing redistribution because people expect to make it to the top of the economic ladder, the authors of the new paper argue that people don’t like to be at the bottom. One paradoxical consequence of this “last-place aversion” is that some poor people may be vociferously opposed to the kinds of policies that would actually raise their own income a bit but that might also push those who are poorer than them into comparable or higher positions. The authors ran a series of experiments where students were randomly allotted sums of money, separated by $1, and informed about the “income distribution” that resulted. They were then given another $2, which they could give either to the person directly above or below them in the distribution.

In keeping with the notion of “last-place aversion”, the people who were a spot away from the bottom were the most likely to give the money to the person above them: rewarding the “rich” but ensuring that someone remained poorer than themselves. Those not at risk of becoming the poorest did not seem to mind falling a notch in the distribution of income nearly as much. This idea is backed up by survey data from America collected by Pew, a polling company: those who earned just a bit more than the minimum wage were the most resistant to increasing it.

Poverty may be miserable. But being able to feel a bit better-off than someone else makes it a bit more bearable.

Thanks, Mr Jender, for sending me this fascinating article.

6 thoughts on “Who opposes redistribution the most?

  1. “Poverty may be miserable. But being able to feel a bit better-off than someone else makes it a bit more bearable.”

    That’s one interpretation, but here’s another: Give to the rich is a learned heuristic. The rich are better in a position to reward you than the poor are, and you curry favor with them by giving them more. It’s better to get credit with the rich than with the poor.

    That’s really just a corollary of – Steal from the rich, because the poor haven’t got anything you want.

  2. There’s another interpretation with perhaps scientific backing: We really have strong inclinations to social balance: we want to return favors and to have them returned. But the poor, at least in these uni-dimensional games – cannot reciprocate.

    However, people do give to the poor. We also do not live in these uni-dimensional societies. The poor can give back. So perhaps the generalization from the experimental situation to real life is just wrong.

    The scientific backing could be found in the extensive studies done in neuro-economics. I have in mind especially recent work by Anne Harvey and Read Montague. There are several recent papers out on one direction in the seeking of balance – giving back. Anyone interested can find them at Read’s site at Virgnia Tech, which is easily googled.

  3. My wholly unscientific personal experience suggests that people in general are more troubled when those who are poorer than they are become richer than they are than
    when those who are richer than they are become even richer and that people are more concerned about falling on the ladder of social status and income (that is, of their relative position going down) than concerned about increasing their wealth in absolute terms.

  4. Interesting. Could you please post a link to the research report, if published?

    Thanks, Mireille

  5. Hmm, hmm, hmm – students, eh? I wonder how closely an experiment like this mimics the way people in actual situations think? Is one likely to think differently if one has actually experienced grinding poverty? How many of the students involved in the experiment would have done so? Etc.

    (Just been reading about the waist-hip ratio experiments – apparently that old thing about the ideal waist-hip ratio was concluded on the basis of college men’s preferences. When waist-hip ratio preferences were examined in hunter-gatherer societies, they turned out to be different. Surprise, surprise…)

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