How bad a problem is inequality? Are working-class people getting screwed? Should we raise taxes on the rich? Is the United States, in short, a fundamentally unfair place? These are the questions that keep awake policy analysts and fuel endless dinner-party debates. But there’s one group that is not losing very much sleep over them: rich folks.
Sean McElwee, a research assistant at the think tank Demos (@seanmcelwee on Twitter), messed around with data from the General Social Survey, a trove of social-trends data that stretches back decades, and produced a graph (his Excel spreadsheet is here) in which he broke down responses to a rather loaded question by the perceived income of the respondents:
So, in short, people who perceive themselves as wealthy also happen to think that everyone in the U.S. gets a fair shake. Surely a coincidence!
Or not — McElwee added some context in an email:
This is in line with a large body of social science on these questions. Humans tend to accept the “just-world hypothesis,” and therefore prefer to believe that they have earned their income. Kris-Stella Trump finds that “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.” Another study by Andrew J. Oswald and Natavudh Powdthave finds that people who win the lottery are more likely to believe that current wealth distributions are fair, even if they supported left-leaning parties before.
These findings have political consequences. Research by Alberto Alesina and Eliana La finds that Americans who believe that American society offers equal opportunity are more likely to oppose redistribution.
While belief in a just world is psychologically important to humans, there are limits: Remember that people also have a natural tendency to overrate their abilities. When this tendency clashes with just-world theory, sometimes just-world theory gets temporarily abandoned (it can’t be the case that a given person is talented and the world is a fair place and they are not succeeding in life).
So, all things being equal: If we’re poor, it’s because the world is unfair (not because of any failing or lack of talent on our part); if we’re rich, it’s because we’ve risen, through hard work, to the top of a fundamentally fair system (not because we benefited from advantages we didn’t earn). Humans are excellent — and opportunistic — storytellers.