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

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Type: Thesis or Dissertation
Author: Bower-Bir, Jacob
Date: 2014
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/10535/9883
Sector: Social Organization
Subject(s): economics
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—inequalities that trouble them, even—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 wellbeing."

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