American conservatives are global outliers in views about the fairness of income inequality, and they’re among the most likely to attribute such inequality to merit, an ambitious global survey reveals.
Yet when it comes to actual behavior — whether to redistribute money to workers in an experimental setting — American conservatives act a lot like everyone else.
The results suggest that policy preferences are not based on core philosophical differences so much as the stories that parties tell themselves about why people are rich and poor to begin with.
A worldwide experiment
In 2018, four economists at the Center for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality at the Norwegian School of Economics conducted a huge experiment — mostly via face-to-face interviews — using the Gallup World Poll. The Norwegian team, led by Bertil Tungodden and Alexander Cappelen, worked with Gallup to survey 65,000 people across 60 countries about their beliefs related to the gaps between the rich and the poor.
Part of the survey was an experiment. Respondents were randomly assigned to different conditions and presented a real-life scenario: Two people were recently hired to independently complete a short assignment; they were both paid, but one was given an additional $6.
In the first group, survey takers were told that the additional $6 was given out randomly. In the second group, they were told the $6 went to the worker who was more productive in completing the assignment. In both cases, respondents were asked how they would divide the additional earnings: whether they would transfer none of it, some of it or all of it to the other worker.
To identify the political orientation of respondents, I used their response to whether they approved of their country’s leader. American residents were asked about President Trump, while respondents from France, Canada, Britain, Russia, the Philippines and Japan were asked about Emmanuel Macron, Justin Trudeau, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Shinzo Abe, and so on.
Global beliefs on the rich and poor
Globally, a strong majority of people (69 percent) say differences between rich and poor in their country are unfair. Even more (79 percent) say that the national government should aim to reduce those differences. American liberals — defined here as those who do not approve of Mr. Trump — are similar to the global average: 75 percent say inequality is unfair (with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points). Seventy-seven percent say the government should reduce inequality.
American conservatives stand out. Only 26 percent of Americans who approve of Mr. Trump say income differences between rich and poor are unfair. That’s lower than the country average for all 60 nations. Only Japanese supporters of Mr. Abe hold similar views: 23 percent say inequality is unfair. By contrast, most supporters of conservative governments in other countries such as Israel, India and Britain say inequality is unfair.
Strikingly, 26 percent of U.S. conservatives agree that the national government should aim to reduce inequality. That’s far lower than the share of supporters or detractors of national leaders across the 51 countries where approval was asked, and it is far lower than the national average for nine additional countries where leader approval was not asked.
Beliefs about the fairness of inequality and the government’s role are related to the explanations people give for income differences. The survey asked about four reasons for inequality that could be interpreted to imply that the rich deserve higher income: They work harder; they have greater ability; they are more likely to delay gratification; they are more likely to take risks.
It also asked about four reasons that suggest wealth may be unrelated to ability: luck, selfishness, illegal activity or family opportunities.
American conservatives are more likely than any other major political group in the world to agree with explanations for inequality suggesting the rich deserve to be richer. And they’re unlikely to agree with statements suggesting that the rich are richer for reasons unrelated to merit. Supporters of Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, were the only group whose explanations for inequality favored the rich as much as did those of American Trump supporters.
Saying one thing, doing another
Yet the story changes when we move to the experimental results that look at actual behaviors.
Despite the wide gaps in beliefs with the rest of the world, American conservatives were just as likely as the average person in the world to redistribute the bonus income equally to each worker when told the bonus was based on random chance. The majority (53 percent) of Trump supporters redistributed the money equally, compared with 51 percent of people around the world and 63 percent of American liberals.
American conservatives might assume liberals are averse to merit-based compensation. The experiment proves that’s not so. When told the bonus payment was made only to the most productive worker, only 13 percent of the liberals transferred all of the money equally to the less productive worker, which is within the margin of error of the American conservative response (10 percent).
Americans both liberal and conservative were more likely than most people worldwide to accept merit-based income differences. As one of the study’s investigators, Mr. Tungodden, mentioned in his public presentation on the study, people in richer countries were more likely than people in poorer countries to allow merit-based differences. In the rich and more egalitarian country of Norway, 88 percent of respondents transferred the bonus payment equally when told it was allocated by chance, but only 33 percent did so when allocated by merit.
Further illustrating the divide between beliefs and actions, American conservatives were just as likely as the average person around the world (and as American liberals) to say that within the last month they had donated to a charity, helped a stranger or volunteered their time to an organization. Such actions, insofar as they alleviate poverty, would seem to contradict the idea that the poor deserve to be poor and that inequality is fair.
Understanding the causes of inequality
Once you strip away the ideological veneer and look at specific cases, the differences between political parties become superficial in at least one respect: Conservatives will redistribute riches acquired at random, and liberals will reward good performance.
The many implications of this research will be explored in future publications from the Norwegian team. One interesting extension would be to examine whether and how the gender or ethnicity of workers affects a respondent’s willingness to pay or redistribute.
For now, liberals who want more redistribution may want to consider persuading conservatives that at least some of the money earned by the rich is not based on productive contributions.
Conservatives who want lower taxes — or who want to avoid the wealth tax — may consider emphasizing the productive contributions of rich people.
One thing is clear: How rich people earn their money is widely regarded as important when people consider the fairness of the income distribution. Successful entrepreneurs often create value for large numbers of customers and generate good jobs for their employees. But many top-income earners in America benefit from distorted markets. They are not entrepreneurs and do not invent new products or services, and their success has coincided with meager wage growth for the middle class. As I’ve written before, income inequality in the United States would fall drastically if people were compensated based only on their ability.
Better aligning the opportunities to get rich with generating broader social value would seem to be a goal that nearly everyone could agree on.
Jonathan Rothwell is the author of “A Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society” He is the Principal Economist at Gallup, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting scholar at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @jtrothwell, and listen to his podcast, “Out of the Echo Chamber.”