Americans want to live in a much more equal country. Dan Ariely of Duke University asked thousands of people to describe their ideal distribution of wealth, from top to bottom. The vast majority — rich, poor, GOP and Democrat — imagined a far more equal nation.
We took a step back and examined social inequality based on the definition that the philosopher John Rawls gave in his book A Theory of Justice. In Rawls’ terms, a society is just if a person understands all the conditions within that society and is willing to enter it in a random place (in terms of socio-economic status, gender, race, and so on). In terms of wealth, that means that people know everything about the wealth distribution and are willing to enter that society anywhere along the spectrum. They could be among the poorest or the richest, or anywhere in between. Rawls called this idea the “veil of ignorance” because the decision of whether to enter a particular society is disconnected from the particular knowledge that the individual has about the level of wealth that he or she will have after making the decision.
Ariely looked at several surveys that he conducted and found that regardless of our political beliefs, people want more equality than we have
There are a few lessons that we can learn from this. The first is that we vastly underestimate the level of inequality that we have in America. Our society is far more uneven in terms of wealth than we believe it is. Second, we want much more equality than both what we have and what we think we have. Apparently, when asked in a way that avoids hot-button terms, misconceptions, and the level of wealth people currently possess, Americans are actually in agreement about wanting a more equal distribution of wealth. In fact, the vast majority of Americans prefer a distribution of wealth more equal than what exists in Sweden, which is often placed rhetorically at the extreme far left in terms of political ideology–embraced by liberals as an ideal society and disparaged by conservatives as an overreaching socialist nanny state.
A third lesson concerns the political gap between Democrats and Republicans: Given the extraordinarily polarized and derisive rhetoric flying back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, one would think there was an insurmountable gap between their positions. So how is it possible that we found so little difference between them in our study? One reason for this could be our inability to separate our ideology from our current state of wealth. Our interests tend to color our view both of how things are and how they should be. Another reason could be politicians, who, in order to rally people to their side, try to generate feelings of greater difference and opposition–and therefore conflict–than actually exist. From this perspective one could claim that politicians obfuscate similarities by using galvanizing but elusive terms like “small government,” “tax relief,” and “freedom.”