There is a perception that 'the wealthy' are opposed to more taxes and income redistribution in America. But the wealthy already pay an alarming amount in taxes and 47% remain loyal to tax-cutting politicians every election cycle.
People have ideological reasons to oppose government redistribution of their work, of course, but it may also be relative. Someone who is in a poor neighborhood but doing better than others may not like the idea of higher taxes either, according to a paper in Psychological Science.
Survey results compiled by the authors finds that those people are not motivated by greed. Instead, they see politicians and people who want more taxes as greedy, and desiring 'something for nothing'. So people who support more taxes, fees and regulations are blinded by their own self-interest, because they don't see how it damages the economic system that made America great in the past.
While it seems logical that people would support whichever wealth distribution policy enhances their own bottom line, research consistently shows that the association between actual household income and attitudes toward redistribution is weak. Lead author Jazmin Brown-Iannuzzi of the University of North Carolina, Payne, and colleagues speculated that perceived socioeconomic status, how people judge their status relative to those around them, might be the more influential factor.
This makes sense. If people are not motivated by greed or feel like they are slaves to the government, they recognize that higher taxes mean they do the same work but have less money. So they will have to do more work to have the same lifestyle they have now, in many cases to benefit people who don't work as hard or did not get an education, etc.
An online survey of adults revealed that the more well-off people felt relative to most people in the US, the less supportive they were of policies that involved redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor. Importantly, support for redistribution wasn't related to participants' actual household income or level of education.
And the results from a second online study provided further experimental support for the link. Participants who were given feedback suggesting they had more discretionary income than "similar" peers showed less support for redistribution and reported being more politically conservative (less liberal) than those who were told they were worse off than their peers.
In two additional experiments, participants were induced to feel wealthy or poor according to their performance in an investing game. Some performed "better than 89% of all players," watching their assets rise and then dip by 20% due to income redistribution.
Others performed "worse than 89% of all players," seeing their assets dip before receiving a bonus through redistribution.
When asked how they might improve the rules for future participants, the "poor" players seemed to be satisfied with the existing rules, while the "wealthy" players preferred significantly less redistribution.
And the players' perceived status seemed to affect their broader political views. "Wealthy" players viewed inequality in the game, and the American economic system as a whole, as more fair than did "poor" players. And they viewed those who recommended increasing redistribution as more biased.
"When people were made to feel wealthier, they not only opposed redistribution but they also began endorsing more conservative principles and ideologies in general," says psychologist and paper co-author Keith Payne of the University of North Carolina. "They began to see the world as a fair and just meritocracy. And this was all the result of a simple five minute manipulation of relative comparisons to others."
These findings suggest that feelings of subjective wealth drive people's attitudes toward redistributive policies, and that they shift to ideological positions that justify these attitudes. Thus, the social comparisons we make on a daily basis may end up having consequences for our political preferences.