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Individual notions of distributive justice and relative economic status

Abigail Barr, Justine Burns, Luis Miller and Ingrid Shaw
IFS Working Paper W11/19

Issues of inequality, distribution and redistribution are commanding progressively more attention in the minds of not only world leaders, politicians, and academics but also of ordinary people. So, what constitutes distributive justice in the minds of ordinary people? The philosophical literature offers several alternative principles of distributive justice. But which of these, if any, do ordinary people adopt as the principle against which to judge their own and other people's and entities' outcomes and actions?

This paper presents the findings from two experiments designed to test the hypothesis that individuals' notions of distributive justice are associated with their economic status relative to others within their own society. In the experiments, each participant played a specially designed distribution game. This game allowed us to establish whether and to what extent the participants perceived inequalities owing to differences in productivity rather than luck as just and, hence, not in need of redress. A type of participant that distinguished between inequalities owing to productivity and luck, redressing the latter and not or to a lesser extent the former, is said to be subject to an earned endowment effect. Drawing on previous work in both economics and psychology, we hypothesised that the richer members of any society would be more likely to be subject to an earned endowment effect, while the poorer members would be more inclined towards redistribution irrespective of whether the inequality was owing to productivity or luck.

We conducted our first experiment in the UK. We selected unemployed residents of one city to represent low economic status individuals and student and employed residents of the same city to represent relatively high economic status individuals. We found a statistically significant earned endowment effect among the students and employed and no effect among the unemployed. The difference between the unemployed and the others was also statistically significant.

Our second experiment was designed to test the generalizability of the findings from our first. It was conducted in Cape Town, South Africa. Exploiting the fact that Cape Town is home to one of the continent's best universities, we built a participant sample that was highly comparable to the UK sample in many regards. However, the states of employment and unemployment are less distinct in South Africa as compared to the UK and a number of interventions are in place to ensure that the student body of the University of Cape Town includes young people from not only rich and middle income but also poorer households. So, in South Africa we chose to rely on responses to a survey question to distinguish between high and low economic status individuals. The findings from this second experiment also supported the hypothesis; among individuals who classified their households as rich or high or middle income there was a statistically significant earned endowment effect, among individuals who classified their households as poor or low income there was not and the different between the two participant types was significant.

We conclude that individuals' notions of distributive justice are associated with their relative economic status within society and that this is a generalizable result.

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