Explaining Other People’s Stances on Inequality

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of Social Policy.  To access a full version click here.

Are people who want the government to reduce inequality trying to help the poor, or are they just looking for a free lunch? Are those opposed to redistribution worried about the economy, or are they worried about their bank accounts?

We surveyed over 12000 people across Europe and the US to explore the motives they thought lay behind the pro- and anti-redistribution stances of their fellow citizens. Results suggest that people generally assign more benign motivations to those favouring redistribution and more negative ones to those opposing it – but that these patterns vary quite a lot cross-nationally. While citizens in some countries, like Denmark and Norway, are willing to assume the best about the motivations driving those on either side of the debate, in other places, like France and the US, a more sceptical reading seems to dominate.

Redistribution and Social Conflict

Redistribution has become an increasingly polarising issue over the last decade. While fiscal conservatives seek to roll back the welfare state, other citizens are calling for a more interventionist government that will reduce economic inequalities. A lot of past research has focused on explaining and describing redistributive preferences, highlighting the relevance of factors such as household income, the structure of inequality, and party identification. Yet to fully understand the depth of social conflict surrounding redistribution, it is not enough to simply examine why different voters might hold different opinions: we should also explore just how morally charged the conflict is.

To that end, we investigated what we call motive attribution: that is, how people answer the question “what drives others to take the positions that they hold?” Do they think wanting more redistribution is a sign of trying to help the poor, or does it reveal an underlying jealousy or laziness? Do they see opposition to redistribution as an expression of concern for the economy, a desire to maintain one’s social status, or a brute dislike of the poor? And to what extent do people think self-interest or a commitment to fairness drives pro- and anti-redistribution individuals?

Patterns of Motive Attribution

Let’s start by exploring the motives citizens ascribe to those taking pro-redistribution stances. Looking at the percentage of respondents who agreed that a given motive was relevant highlights three major patterns. First, it is in the US and France that citizens seem most inclined to ascribe negative motives to those favouring redistribution: French and American respondents were the most likely to affirm that people support redistribution because they are lazy or are seeking to help themselves. Norwegians and Danes, by contrast, were among the least likely to agree with these statements. Second, despite a general trend toward assuming the best about pro-redistribution individuals, the idea that they want to help the poor is strikingly unpopular across all of our cases. Finally, we find that in every country we surveyed, a majority of individuals declared that people support redistribution out of a concern for fairness – though even here, the Americans and the French proved comparatively sceptical.

Attributed motives for pro-redistribution preferences, per cent in agreement by country

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And what motivations do people suggest drive those opposing redistribution? Survey results show that the self-interested motives of “protecting their status” and “helping themselves” were extremely popular in all of the countries. Variation on our other motives is much larger, however. Over half of the Spanish, French, and Italian respondents stated that anti-redistribution individuals were motivated by a dislike of the poor, compared to less than a third of Scandinavian and Dutch respondents. Cross-country differences on the charitable “keep the economy strong” motive are similarly large, but here it is the Scandinavian populations that were most in agreement: a majority of Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes felt this motive applied, while agreement in the Anglo, Southern European, and French samples was in the thirty-percent range. Rounding out the results, we find an even more exaggerated version of this pattern for the claim that fairness concerns motivate those opposing redistribution: agreement here ranged from 72 percent in Denmark to a mere 30 percent in France.

Attributed motives for anti-redistribution preferences, per cent in agreement by country

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One final revealing way to analyse the responses is to look at the percentage of respondents that applied the same exact motive to pro- and anti-redistribution individuals. Trends here can help to shed light on the broader political context: stating that both sides of the debate are driven by fairness concerns likely suggests a less hostile environment, while assuming that each side is self-interested points to greater scepticism and cynicism. Turning first to the fairness motive, we see that the Scandinavians stand out once again: roughly half of all Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes thought that fairness motivated those on both sides of the redistribution debate. That percentage drops to about a third in the UK, the US, and Spain – and to about a fifth in France. In the mirror image of these results, the French were by far the most likely to agree that both sides were motivated by a desire to help themselves, at a rate of just over 50 percent. Norway and Denmark, in turn, are the countries where this was least likely to be the case, with rates in the low- to mid-30 percent range.

Respondents assigning the same motive to pro- and anti-redistribution individuals, percentage by country (in descending order of assigning “Fairness”)

Screen Shot 2019-05-08 at 13.23.34

Overall, our survey results highlight broad patterns in motive attribution alongside considerable cross-country differences. On the one hand, citizens in all of our countries seem more inclined to ascribe positive motives to pro-redistribution individuals than to anti-redistribution ones. On the other, while relatively genteel interpretations tended to dominate in Scandinavia, citizens of other countries – most notably France and the US – were far more sceptical. Exploring the causes and consequences of these differences, however, is a task for future research.

About the Authors

Anthony Kevins is a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Utrecht University School of Governance. His research centres around public opinion, representation, and the welfare state, and his work has been published in journals such as Socio-Economic Review and the Journal of European Social Policy. You can read more about his research on his website, which also includes open-access copies of his published articles.

Alexander Horn is a Postdoc at the WZB and the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark. His work has appeared in journals such as the European Journal of Political Research and the Journal of European Social Policy. He is also the author of the book Government Ideology, Economic Pressure, and Risk Privatization: How Economic Worldviews Shape Social Policy Choices. You can read more about his work on his ResearchGate profile.

Carsten Jensen is a Professor at Aarhus University’s Department of Political Science. His research is focused on the causes and consequences of redistributive politics in advanced western democracies, as well as democratic representation more broadly. His work has been published in journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, the British Journal of Political Science, and Comparative Political Studies.

Kees van Kersbergen is Professor of Comparative Politics at Aarhus University. His research interests lie in comparative politics, comparative political economy and comparative political sociology. He has published widely in the area of welfare state studies in refereed journals and with major university presses. His latest book is The Politics of Inequality (Palgrave; co-authored with Carsten Jensen).


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