Americans want more equality

Really interesting piece in the Atlantic by Dan Ariely about his latest research on inequality.  First step, he has American estimate how much inequality there is.   Not surprisingly, Americans way under-estimate.  Then, in a further step, he asks them what their ideal economic distribution would like.  Short version: even more equal than Sweden.  Here’s the chart that sums this all up.


We found that the ideal distribution described by this representative sample of Americans was dramatically more equal than exists anywhere in the world, with 32% of wealth belonging to the wealthiest quintile down to 11% by the poorest (see Figure 3).

So to be clear, what you are seeing is the actual distribution of wealth by quintile, what Americans think it actually is, and what they suggest would be an ideal distribution.

What’s also interesting, is how universal this is:

What was particularly surprising about the results was that when we examined the ideal distributions for Republicans and Democrats, we found them to be quite similar (see Figure 4). When we examined the results by other variables, including income and gender, we again found no appreciable differences. It seems that Americans — regardless of political affiliation, income, and gender — want the kind of wealth distribution shown in Figure 3, which is very different from what we have and from what we think we have (see Figure 2).

And, finally, they have a very cool experiment based on Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance (and honestly, one of the best explanations of this philosophical concept I’ve seen):

We took a step back and examined social inequality based on the definition that the philosopher John Rawls gave in his book A Theory of Justice. In Rawls’ terms, a society is just if a person understands all the conditions within that society and is willing to enter it in a random place (in terms of socio-economic status, gender, race, and so on). In terms of wealth, that means that people know everything about the wealth distribution and are willing to enter that society anywhere along the spectrum. They could be among the poorest or the richest, or anywhere in between. Rawls called this idea the “veil of ignorance” because the decision of whether to enter a particular society is disconnected from the particular knowledge that the individual has about the level of wealth that he or she will have after making the decision.

Short version: the research subjects overwhelmingly (over 90%) chose to live in a hypothetical Equalden (based on Sweden) than on a hypothetical USA.

Also, lots of interesting discussion and conclusions.  Enough excerpting– if you are interested in the topic, you should read the whole thing.  Still, just these basics are enough that I see some of these charts making an appearance next time I discuss equality in my Intro class.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

One Response to Americans want more equality

  1. itchy says:

    Interesting. I’ve seen some similar studies, but nothing like the Rawls take.

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