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How much equality would you like?

September 5, 2012

From The Economist:

“AMERICANS want to live in a much more equal country (they just don’t realise it)”. So says Dan Ariely, who, along with Mike Norton, found that Americans ridiculously underestimate the amount of inequality in their country. In reality, American society is staggeringly unequal: the top 20% hold 84% of the wealth, while the bottom 40% have just 0.3%. But according to Mr Ariely, Americans, whether liberal or conservative, rich or poor, prefer a wealth distribution that is more egalitarian than Sweden’s.

Mr Ariely’s data may seem to hold out hope for the egalitarian cause. Once you enlighten Americans with the facts about inequality in their society, the argument goes, they will be outraged and demand redistributive policies that reduce the wealth and income gaps. But Mr Ariely’s approach is deeply flawed: he misinterprets his survey results and misunderstands the political philosophy of John Rawls, the theorist who inspired his inquiry.

Don’t get me wrong, extreme inequality is objectionable for all sorts of reasons. But we cannot conclude from Mr Ariely’s data that Americans find these reasons persuasive or that they would support measures to reduce it. Americans still believe, despite strong evidence to the contrary, that the American dream is alive and well. [More]

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