How do Americans think about distributive justice?

Nic Dias

Graduate Fellow, Polarization Research Lab & Doctoral Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Democracies must ensure that benefits and burdens are distributed across citizens justly. Failing to do so is immoral (Rawls 1971). Moreover, the absence of distributive justice has many troubling consequences: material dissatisfaction (Alwin 1987), policy non-compliance (Verboon and van Dijke 2007), and theft (Umphress et al. 2009).

Yet, do Americans have coherent preferences about distributive justice? How do they work through trade-offs between social goals such as ensuring wealth is determined by effort, providing for basic needs, and ensuring wealth equality?

With a recent survey supported by the Polarization Research Lab, I asked a quota-matched sample of American adults from YouGov (N = 2,000) three questions designed to capture how Americans prioritize three social goals—or, as political philosophers called them, distributive justice principles (see Lamont and Favor 2017 for a review). These three goals were ensuring wealth is determined by effort (i.e., deservingness), providing for basic needs (i.e., sufficiency), and ensuring wealth equality (i.e., equality). 

94.3% of Americans, 95% CI [93.2, 95.3], have coherent or “transitive” (Ciuk and Jacoby 2014) preferences about deservingness, equality, and sufficiency. That is, very few Americans express non-sensical orderings of preferences about these principles. To clarify with an example, imagine that an individual prefers a society where effort drives wealth over one that provides for basic needs. Yet, this same individual prefers a society that provides for basic needs over one that ensures wealth equality. Logically, then, this individual should prefer a society where effort drives wealth over one that ensures wealth equality. That pattern of logical entailment is overwhelmingly met.

How do Americans prioritize deservingness, equality, and sufficiency? A large majority of Republicans (70.5%) rank deservingness first, 95% CI [66.9, 73.9]. By contrast, around half of Democrats (51.2%) rank sufficiency first, 95% CI [48.0, 54.4], and a little more than a third (36.1%) rank deservingness first, 95% CI [33.0, 39.2]. 

Only 5.5% of Americans, regardless of partisanship, indicated that ensuring wealth equality was their highest priority, 95% CI [4.5, 6.6]. To be sure, wealth equality is not irrelevant to Americans. 35.5% of Americans prioritize ensuring wealth equality over either ensuring wealth is determined by effort or providing for basic needs, 95% CI [33.4, 37.6]. However, by and large, wealth inequality per se seems less troubling to Americans than poverty or a lack of economic opportunity. 

Elsewhere in the survey, participants were asked for their positions on various policy issues—e.g., graduated taxes, labor power, government health insurance. Participants’ responses to the above questions predicted their positions on several policy issues—over and above demographics, partisanship, and self-reported ideology. For example, participants who prioritized providing for basic needs over ensuring that effort drives wealth were more likely to support a government insurance plan that covers all medical expenses for everyone.

This work was featured in The New York Times on November 15, 2023.

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