What We Deserve: The Moral Origins of Economic Inequality and Our Policy Responses to It

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Date
2014-10
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[Bloomington, Ind.] : Indiana University
Abstract
This dissertation is about economic inequality and why it thrives in a country with professedly egalitarian values. I propose that people's economic behavior and policy preferences are largely driven by their understanding of deservingness. So long as a person believes that their compatriots are generally served their economic due, economic outcomes require no tampering, at least on moral grounds. People may tolerate grave inequalities &mdash inequalities that trouble them, even &mdash if they think those inequalities are deserved. Indeed, if outcomes appear deserved, altering them constitutes an unjust act. Resources meted to the undeserving, conversely, require correction. To begin, I show how desert unifies behavioral research into the otherwise disparate notions of justice that social scientists usually cite. Desert I treat as a social institution, one that helps resolve a common multiple-equilibria problem: the allocation of wealth and socioeconomic station. As a natural phenomenon emerging from repeated human interaction, individuals are motivated to ensure desert's reward. The precise definition of desert, however, will vary across cultures and individuals. I use surveys, survey experiments, and economic experiments to determine how different segments of the American population define economic desert. I then use those surveys and experiments to measure the extent to which different sub-populations believe that economic desert is actually rewarded. Finally, I show that these two variables -- definition of economic desert and faith in its reward -- shape an individual's willingness to redistribute wealth, both in the laboratory and through national policy, and often at a detriment to personal financial well-being.
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Thesis (Ph.D.) - Indiana University, Political Science, 2014
Keywords
Desert, Economic inequality, Experiments, Institutions, Natural justice, Redistribution
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Attribution 3.0 United States (CC BY 3.0 US)
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Doctoral Dissertation