We measured attitudes toward equality by asking hundreds of Americans to distribute a pot of money between themselves and an anonymous other person. Our subjects weren’t making hypothetical choices in responding to the survey—their decisions affected how much real money they would get when the experiment ended.
Each subject could keep or redistribute as much of her budget as she liked, but with a twist. Whereas the standard version of this experiment—known to economists as a “dictator game”—asks subjects to split a fixed pie, we varied the “price” of redistribution. In some cases, giving was expensive: Every dollar of her own that a subject sacrificed bought her anonymous beneficiary as little as a dime. In other cases, giving was “cheap”: Every dollar sacrificed contributed as much as $10 to her beneficiary. Most cases fell between these extremes.
The choices that subjects made provide a window into their attitudes toward economic justice. First, the experiment allowed us to measure subjects’ selfishness. A “selfish” subject keeps the entire pie, regardless of the price of giving. By contrast, a “fair-minded” subject does not prefer herself over her beneficiary, so that, for example, if she keeps a lot when giving is expensive, she will give a lot when giving is cheap. This means that on average, across all prices of giving, a fair-minded person keeps and gives about the same amount of money.
Our experiment also allowed us to measure how subjects trade off equality against efficiency. Subjects who care only about efficiency respond very sensitively to changes in the price of redistribution. When giving is expensive, they give little; when it is cheap, they give a lot. By contrast, an equality-minded subject will always ensure that both she and her recipient end up with the same amount, even if it means that less money is paid out overall.
Both trade-offs play central roles in the crafting of economic and social policy. The trade-off between selfishness and fair-mindedness informs the willingness of the haves to make sacrifices in order to aid the have-nots. The trade-off between efficiency and equality speaks to the tolerance that policymakers have for redistributive programs (like taxing the rich and productive to support the poor) that might lead to lower GDP but divide our country’s income up more equally. Especially where redistribution transfers resources from the rich to the poor using what economists call leaky buckets, the trade-off between efficiency and equality determines how big a leak is acceptable. ...
... To begin with, the Berkeley and Yale subjects were twice as likely to be selfish as their compatriots in general. In this respect, intermediate and extreme elites stand together with each other, and stand apart from the rest of the country.
What’s more, elite Americans show a far greater commitment to efficiency over equality than ordinary Americans. And this time, the bias toward efficiency increases with each increment of eliteness. The ALP subjects split roughly evenly between focusing on efficiency and focusing on equality; the Berkeley students favored efficiency over equality by a factor of roughly 3-to-2; and the Yale Law students favored efficiency by a factor of 4-to-1.
Yale Law students’ overwhelming, indeed almost eccentric, commitment to efficiency over equality is all the more astonishing given that the students self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans—and thus sided with the party that claims to represent economic equality in partisan politics—by a factor of more than 10-to-1. An elite constituted by highly partisan Democrats thus showed an immensely greater commitment to efficiency over equality than the bipartisan population at large.
Elites’ preferences matter. The American elite overwhelmingly dominates both campaign finance and political lobbying, and American policymakers themselves come overwhelmingly from elite circles—the powerbroker Yale Law alumni mentioned above represent just the tip of a vast iceberg. ...
Democracy gives the mass of citizens a path for protest when the gap between ordinary views and a closed rank of elite opinion grows too great. The populist insurgencies that increasingly dominate the contests to select both the Republican and Democratic candidates in the upcoming presidential election show the protest path in action. Elites—in both parties—remain baffled by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ appeal; and they prayerfully insist that both campaigns will soon fade away. Our study suggests a different interpretation, however. These bipartisan disruptions of elite political control are no flash in the pan, or flings born of summer silliness. They are early skirmishes in a coming class war.