The Globalization of Plutocracy

According to a 2015 paper by American political scientist Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University, the gap between the rich and poor — and the subsequent unresponsiveness of government to the needs of the majority — is not just a feature of United States, as a multitude of studies have revealed. The struggle between the haves and have nots seems inextricably tied to our species, varying only be degree.

For example, in almost every nation Bartels studied, the wealthy were generally and categorically opposed to social spending, even during bad economic times.


This gap plays out in government policy, which is generally at odds with the public preferences, as the following chart shows.

representation2Nevertheless, the degree to which a society’s inhabitants — both rich and poor — are disapproving of social spending varies wildly across the developed world; this shows how much other factors, such as cultural values and economic policies, can shape and conditions people’s socioeconomic views.



Salon summarizes the results of the research as follows:

The United States was a leader in class conflict, with the largest gap between the rich and poor on social spending of any nation, the second highest gap on budget-cutting preferences (only Finland had a greater level of class conflict) and the fourth highest gap on welfare state values (after Netherlands, Sweden and New Zealand). The Nordic countries had among the highest gaps in opinion, suggesting that many of the rich may feel that the country has gone too far to reduce inequality and providing public goods. In only one country, South Korea, were the rich more supportive of higher social spending than the poor. In all countries, the wealthy were less supportive of “welfare state values” than the poor.

When Bartels compared the policy preferences of the rich and poor to actual policy results (with controls) his results were disturbing. He finds that low-income preferences had virtually no effect on policy outcomes.

Then Bartels, in a deeply original and important contribution to the literature, estimates what the effect of equal representation would be on social spending, and uses that measurement to conclude that, by contrast, biased responsiveness reduces real social spending per capita by 28 percent on average. In the United States, he finds that the gap is around 40 percent.

To repeat: Social spending in the United States is 40 percent lower than it would be if policymakers didn’t disproportionately respond to the rich.

Bartels own conclusions raise many important implications and concerns:

As a purely descriptive matter, citizens in affluent democracies generally say they want their governments to spend more than they already do on a variety of major social welfare programs. Public demand for additional social spending is substantial (in some cases, overwhelming) and tends to persist (or even increase) over time. While there may be good reasons to discount these spending preferences—for example, because the same citizens often express practically contradictory demands for government budget-cutting—they nevertheless provide strong prima facie evidence of subjective incongruence between public opinion and social welfare policy.


[I]nsofar as policy-makers do respond to public preferences, my analysis suggests that they respond primarily or even entirely to the preferences of affluent citizens. Indeed, in models allowing for the effective political influence of citizens to vary with income, the influence attributed to poor citizens is not just less than that attributed to affluent citizens, but consistently negative. This apparent evidence of hyper-inequality may be an artifact of peculiar patterns of measurement error (Achen 1985; Gilens 2012, 253-258) or other problems of data or model specification. Nonetheless, my findings are consistent with those of other recent studies (Donnelly and Lefkofridi 2014; Peters and Ensink 2015) in suggesting that severe class disparities in responsiveness are endemic in affluent democracies, not limited to the United States. Moreover, rudimentary comparisons of patterns of responsiveness in countries with different political cultures and institutions provide little indication of significant variation in the relationship between public opinion and social welfare policy.

As one researcher cited in the Salon piece points out, both houses of the U.S. Congress spend less on their staff than special interests spend on lobbying — $2 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively — which makes American legislators easy to buy off. Hence why some political scientists advocate for the seemingly counter-intuitive idea that representatives should be paid more and, in the case of many state-level legislatures, be made into proper full-time careers (many state houses employ part-time representatives, for whom public service is basically a side gig).

As I have pointed out before, resolving this issue in the U.S. and elsewhere is easy enough on paper but far more daunting in practice.

Unions promote both economic and political equality – they both push up the wages of workers and mobilize politically for the interests of the middle class. Automatic voter registration would boost turnout, and combined with non-partisan get-out-the-vote operations offers the most viable route to boosting turnout among low-propensity individuals. Disclosure of campaign donations, robust public financing of elections and limits on the ability of corporations and wealthy individuals to influence elections could alleviate the pervasive influence of money over politics.

What is most interesting to me is how universal this problem is. It is easy to forget the political and social issues our society faces are hardly ever unique; some of the specifics may very, but overall, humanity has always struggled with class inequities of some form of another — outside of a few small tribal societies, just about every civilization was characterized by deeply embedded and violently enforced socioeconomic hierarchies, wherein the vast majority of people were poor, illiterate, and disenfranchised.

Thankfully, most of the world has come a long way since then, and there has been much progress in alleviating the consequences of inequality, from hunger to abject poverty. But clearly, the gains are tenuous, even in the most progressive societies, and we have a long way to go before we can eliminate (or more realistically, vastly mitigate) the hierarchical tendencies of our society.

What are your thoughts?

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