Why people prefer unequal societies

There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality. Both psychological research and decisions by policymakers would benefit from more clearly distinguishing inequality from unfairness.

We live in an age of inequality—or at least in an age of worrying about inequality. Pope Francis remarked that “inequality is the root of social evil”, while President Obama called economic inequality “the defining challenge of our time”. A recent Pew report found that Europeans and Americans judged inequality as posing the greatest threat to the world, beating religious and ethnic hatred, pollution, nuclear weapons, and diseases like AIDS. A majority of respondents in each of the 44 countries polled said the gap between rich and poor is a big or very big problem facing their country1. And a new report by Oxfam2 revealed that the wealth owned by the eight richest people in the world is equivalent to the wealth owned by the poorest 50% of the world, sparking widespread outrage.

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