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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Apr 3;115(14):3611-3616. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1720457115. Epub 2018 Mar 19.

Inequality and redistribution behavior in a give-or-take game.

Author information

1
Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899; mbechtel@wustl.edu scheve@stanford.edu.
2
Swiss Institute for International Economics and Applied Economic Research, University of St. Gallen, CH-9000 St. Gallen, Switzerland.
3
Department of Political Science, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-6044 mbechtel@wustl.edu scheve@stanford.edu.

Abstract

Political polarization and extremism are widely thought to be driven by the surge in economic inequality in many countries around the world. Understanding why inequality persists depends on knowing the causal effect of inequality on individual behavior. We study how inequality affects redistribution behavior in a randomized "give-or-take" experiment that created equality, advantageous inequality, or disadvantageous inequality between two individuals before offering one of them the opportunity to either take from or give to the other. We estimate the causal effect of inequality in representative samples of German and American citizens (n = 4,966) and establish two main findings. First, individuals imperfectly equalize payoffs: On average, respondents transfer 12% of the available endowments to realize more equal wealth distributions. This means that respondents tolerate a considerable degree of inequality even in a setting in which there are no costs to redistribution. Second, redistribution behavior in response to disadvantageous and advantageous inequality is largely asymmetric: Individuals who take from those who are richer do not also tend to give to those who are poorer, and individuals who give to those who are poorer do not tend to take from those who are richer. These behavioral redistribution types correlate in meaningful ways with support for heavy taxes on the rich and the provision of welfare benefits for the poor. Consequently, it seems difficult to construct a majority coalition willing to back the type of government interventions needed to counter rising inequality.

KEYWORDS:

democracy; experiment; inequality; policy preferences; redistribution

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