My son sent me a link the other day to a isidewith.com to see who I would vote for. You are allowed to weight the questions according that issue’s importance to you, which ostensibly will lead to a more accurate assessment of who you support based on their positions. I came down solidly on the side of Mr. Trump, which was not something I particularly wanted to see. Much of my hostility to Mr. Trump is that he is a populist just like Mrs. Clinton–a nationalist populist as compared to her socialist populism–and I loathe populism. Yet the questions asked didn’t allow me to register that large component of my election preferences.
But as we all know, how you frame an issue really matters to the conclusion of an opinion poll. This article argues that even though most economists support efficiency over equality, in an experiment where people were allowed to have a larger pie with unequal distribution or a smaller pie with more equal distribution, they preferred the more equal distribution.
Consider an experiment published last year in the journal Science. Four economists tested people with a computer simulation in which they could either be greedy and keep tokens that had real cash value, or share them with others. The catch: If they shared them, the total number of tokens would decline. In other words, the more evenly the pie was divided, the less pie there was to go around. There was a trade-off between equality and maximizing income, a version of economic efficiency. Among the general American public, about half of those who played the game favored equality over efficiency.
But when the game was played with elites at Yale, there was a different outcome:
But the researchers also did the experiment at Yale Law School, an elite bastion filled with people who become Supreme Court clerks, White House aides and richly compensated lawyers. Among the Yale students who played the game, 80 percent preferred efficiency to equality. They were more worried about the size of the pie, apparently, than making sure everyone got a slice.
The conclusion? Elites value things like efficiency that the average voter doesn’t. This helps explain results like many American’s support for Donald Trump, opposition to the TPP trade deal, and Brexit. There is a fundamental disconnect between elites and the common Joe or Jane. While I might not disagree with that conclusion at some level, what is missing in the experiment?
Most of us would not want to live in a world where you can not voluntarily share from your earnings to help others. Most of us would rather voluntarily give some of our excess to help those in need have more. But the critical question is when this preference for voluntary action is forced by government policy. Do we have a preference for coerced income redistribution? Some may draw that conclusion from the experiment, but that is really an entirely different question. Framing matters a lot in public policy issues. There is also a corollary question. Is this government program likely to work? In the experiment, if you give up some, everyone below you gets a little more–there is an improved outcome. Whereas in the U.S. war on poverty, the only certain resulting improvement is on behalf of the elites who administer the program.
As usual, it pays to be a Berean, and closely scrutinize what we are seeing.