Public Release: 

Elite emphasize efficiency over equality when distributing resources, study suggests

American Association for the Advancement of Science

This news release is available in Japanese.

A new study suggests that the wealthy, well-educated elite tend to be less fair-minded and more prone to efficiency when distributing resources, compared to the broader public. Furthermore, how the elite population distributes resources can be reflective of future career choices, the study says; those who prefer efficiency over equality are more likely to work in the corporate sector. In recent years, growing economic equality in America has spurred interest in understanding the attitudes and behaviors of the elite, a small population with a large impact on the future of the country. To measure variances between fair-mindedness and efficiency of different socioeconomic groups, Raymond Fisman et al. studied the distributional preferences of Yale Law School (YLS) students, a group many members from which could likely go on to assume positions of power in U.S. society. They surveyed 208 YLS students and compared their answers to respondents of similar age from the American Life Panel (ALP), an internet survey of a diverse population of adults in the U.S. In an experiment involving decision-making about how to spend an endowment, those subjects who decreased the expenditure share spent on others when the relative cost of redistribution increases indicated that they lean toward efficiency (increasing total payoffs), while subjects who increased expenditure when the relative price of redistribution increases indicated a tendency toward equality (reducing differences in payoffs). Based on their responses, only 14.4% of the YLS subjects were classified as "fair-minded" (valuing others' interests over their own) compared to 37.2% of the ALP subjects; in contrast, 79.8% of YLS subjects were identified as "efficiency-focused" versus 49.8% of the ALP sample. The authors followed up with the YLS group upon their graduation to learn of their career choices, and noted that YLS subjects who chose careers in the nonprofit sector were significantly more likely to lean towards equality, while those in the corporate sector preferred efficiency. The authors suggest that the distribution tendency of the elite, who are more likely to be policymakers, may explain the "muted" policy response to increased income inequality in the United States.


Article #8: "The distributional preferences of an elite," by R. Fisman at Boston University in Boston, MA; P. Jakiela at University of Maryland, College Park in College Park, MD; S. Kariv at University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, CA; D. Markovits at Yale University in New Haven, CT.

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