Paradox in attitudes to inequality and redistribution

People living in unequal societies are more likely to support redistribution, but this may not always translate into political action, according to a European research project. A new paper summarises different strands in the project's findings on how inequalities in income and wealth affect 'political and cultural' outcomes – including people's perceptions of inequality, and their attitudes to redistribution.

Key findings

  • People living in more unequal societies are in favour of more redistribution and government intervention, and have a more negative attitude to inequality.
  • People living in countries with high levels of inequality are usually more accepting of the situation than those living in less unequal societies.

The authors acknowledge that these findings seem 'at odds at first sight'. But they suggest the answer lies in a further finding from the research, namely that the salience of traditional 'left-right' issues tends to be higher in more egalitarian societies. Hence, even if people favour redistribution, its low prominence in political debate may translate into a lack of political will to combat inequalities. In other words, inequality levels can be the consequence of political factors, rather than the driver of them.

Source: Herman Van de Werfhorst, István György Tóth, Dániel Horn, Márton Medgyesi, Natascha Notten, Christina Haas and Brian Burgoon, Political and Cultural Impacts of Growing Inequalities, Intermediate Work Package 5 Report, GINI Project (European Commission)
Link: Paper