If you believe economic inequality is a political problem, these are trying times. As economic inequality increases in many of the world’s wealthy democracies, so does the disproportionate political influence of the rich. As a recent Monkey Cage post explained, even though economic inequality is on the rise, politicians around the world have grown increasingly attentive to the demands of the “1 percent” — and less responsive to the less well-off.
If you believe inequality is a bad thing, this trend is worrisome. The power of the rich to mute everyone else’s political voices could push economic inequality even higher, as the wealthy erect ever-higher barriers to policies that might work to reduce poverty and/or inequality.
But the power of the 1 percent to directly influence the political process — through campaign contributions or lobbying, for example — is not the only reason that economic inequality goes untouched by democracy. It turns out that average voters have beliefs that lead them to leave economic inequality untouched.
Why don’t voters “eat the rich”?
The tension between universal suffrage and economic inequality has seemed obvious to observers on both the left and right since democracy’s origins. Karl Marx believed democracy would undermine property; political conservatives feared the same. Since the poor always outnumber the rich, universal suffrage means that a majority of voters earn less than the average income. If we assume, as political economists on both the left and right long have, that everyone with below-average income should want to raise taxes on everyone with above-average income, democracy should always produce pressure for redistribution.
Such pressure should increase as inequality increases. After all, the richer the top 1 percent get compared with everyone else, the more the poor would gain by raising taxes. Universal suffrage means the poor can soak the rich — and the larger the gap between rich and poor, the worse should be the soaking. Transfers from rich to poor do happen, of course, but much of it is channeled to those who already earn well above average income (see here, here, or here).
Yet most voters, even poor ones, just don’t demand higher taxes and redistribution as inequality increases. If they did, we would see much less hand-wringing about the increasing elitism of our politics. Empirical evidence for a direct connection between democracy, inequality and redistribution remains shaky (see this, this or this).
In fact, Ben Ansell, of Oxford University, and I report in a new book that as inequality increases, the demand for redistribution goes down. Why? Opposition to redistribution is partly rooted in the fact that few American voters consider themselves poor or working class, and even fewer understand just how much more money the wealthy have than they themselves do.
Yet even if a majority of voters perfectly understood their relative position in the distribution of incomes, they would probably not cast their votes based on which party promises to redistribute more to them.
Because they don’t believe in redistribution.
Some poor voters oppose Robin Hood policies because they believe capitalism is fair and the rich should be respected, not resented, for their efforts and achievements. Others hold that even though they might be poor in the present, they might be rich in the future, and that people get what they deserve in life and shouldn’t ask for a handout.
For any or all of these reasons, most voters don’t demand redistribution—and in fact, may even support policies that offer greater equality of economic opportunity rather than greater equality of economic outcomes. For example, in many countries pluralities or even majorities of voters believe that low, not high, taxes offer the best path to reducing income inequality.
In principle, universal suffrage gives the poor the power to demand redistribution from the rich. There’s no consensus on why democracies redistribute less than one might predict based on the apparent conflict of formal political equality and increasing economic inequality. But policies that seek to reduce economic inequality are difficult to implement both because the rich have disproportionate influence in the political process and because most voters just do not favor redistribution.
David Samuels is a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. He is the co-author (with Ben Ansell) of “Inequality and Democratization: An Elite-Competition Approach” (Cambridge University Press, 2014), awarded the American Political Science Association’s Woodrow Wilson Prize for “best book in politics, government or international affairs.”