A new report from the liberal Brookings Institute finds that “despite the large increases in economic inequality since 1970”, American survey respondents exhibit no increase in support for redistribution. This holds true even for the two groups who have historically been most reliant on redistribution: the elderly and black Americans.
The report expresses surprise by the results, as does the Washington Post. As the Post‘s Max Ehrenfreund says,
The polling data challenges the common-sense idea that voters support policies that are in their material interest, the authors write. Yet there don’t seem to be any good explanations for the trends, which are shown in the chart above.
It’s not that blacks or the elderly on the whole are becoming wealthier and thus less dependent on government assistance. Black and elderly people were just as likely to change their views on the question whether they were rich or poor. Nor are members of these groups becoming more conservative on other questions.
Notice the pattern of thought embedded in those two paragraphs:
1. It’s in the material interest of the elderly and African Americans to support wealth redistribution.
2. Redistribution of wealth has not made the elderly and African Americans more wealthy.
Perhaps the elderly and African Americans have changed their opinion on redistribution because they recognize, as Ehrenfreund says, that increased redistribution doesn’t make them wealthier or less dependent on government. Ehrenfreund almost appears to recognize this, for in his conclusion he writes, “[T]he figures raise uncomfortable questions for liberals. Their efforts to establish public support for generous redistributive policies are failing among the groups that have the most to gain from them.”
Here’s the thing: Liberals would still support “generous redistributive policies” even if the new policies didn’t make the poor better off materially. If you doubt that’s true, just ask them. When pressed, many will admit helping the poor is merely one reason among many to support redistribution (and not necessarily the primary justification). They are also concerned with “fairness” and it’s simply unfair, in their view, that some people have much more wealth than others (i.e., than they do). Much of the concern about “economic inequality” is about trying to make people less envious by making some people poorer.
The elderly and African Americans are beginning to recognize they are not necessarily “among the groups that have the most to gain” from redistribution, at least not from additional redistributive policies. The ones that truly have the most to gain are liberals who can’t stand the idea that some people have more than they do.