Aug 8, 2012

What Motivates Political Preferences? Self-Interest, Ideology, and Fairness in a Laboratory Democracy

Substantial prior literature has established that subjects in laboratory experiments are typically willing to sacrifice their own well-being to make nancial allocations more equal among participants. We tested the applicability of this result in an environment that contained some of the key contextual issues are usually excluded from more abstract games, in particular situations of income redistribution. Our general finding is that votes for a redistributive tax were almost entirely in accordance with self-interest: above-average earners vote for low tax rates and below-average earners vote for high tax rates. A measure of subjects' preferences for fairness or equality, their self-reported economic ideology, was unrelated to their behavior in this experiment. Because our ideology measure should have been correlated with any intrinsic preferences regarding inequality aversion, we conclude that any preferences for fairness or inequality that our subjects possessed were not strong enough to overcome self-interest in this context.  
Because our results seem to run counter to prior experimental evidence, it is important to interpret these results carefully. While there is evidence that people will sacrifice their own well being for others in abstract ultimatum and dictator games, there is also evidence that this willingness decreases substantially in cases where the subjects have earned their position. Our results should be taken as further confirmation of that result. Our results strongly suggest that when money to be re-distributed is earned through real effort, subjects are much less willing to sacrifice their well-being for that of others. The failure of the ideology variable to explain much about the data is more problematic and more interesting. There can be little doubt that there is substantial support for income redistribution outside of the lab, often by people who do not receive a financial benefit from redistribution. There is, however, little evidence of such behavior in our experimental society.
The also write about what is missing from the experimental design. The title of the paper by Esarey, Salmon, and Barrilleaux is "What Motivates Political Preferences? Self-Interest, Ideology, and Fairness in a Laboratory Democracy" (Economic Inquiery - one of my favorite journals, July 2012). An early draft 2007 is here.

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