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Attitudes to inequality

People’s attitudes towards inequality may depend on their beliefs (about the actual level of inequality, about the sources of the actual inequality, and about the efficiency costs/gains of equalization) and their views on what constitutes a fair distribution of income. Recent evidence from surveys, lab- and field experiments indicates that both beliefs about existing inequalities and fairness preference, i.e., what people consider to be fair inequalities, are important in explaining people’s attitudes towards inequality and redistributive policies.

What people think about inequality matters
How unequal people perceive their society to be often differs substantially from measured inequality. Whether people consider inequalities to be a problem may be related to beliefs about the levels and sources of existing inequalities. Beliefs, as well as preferences, may differ substantially across countries, over time and across different inequality domains. Action by governments to reduce inequalities is therefore likely to depend on people’s knowledge about existing inequalities, whether they consider them fair or unfair, and the perceived efficiency costs of these policies. In short, action by governments to reduce inequalities is only likely to be possible if the public knows the extent of existing inequalities and are sufficiently concerned about them.

People’s judgements about inequality and fairness views
Fairness views may differ substantially across people. Some may find some inequalities fair, such as those related to effort and merit, whereas others may find all inequalities unfair.

People may be aware of inequalities, but not consider them to be a problem if they believe them to be fair. Fairness views may relate to different moral considerations, including the deservingness of people, needs, and equality. Understanding people’s fairness views can help to inform more appropriate policy responses to existing inequalities.

Novel data provides insight into people’s attitudes towards inequality
Through the analysis of surveys and experimental data, it is possible to learn about people’s beliefs and preferences, and to build a picture of concerns about inequality, and how these have changed over time. While an important focus of the analysis for this review is on economic inequality (e.g., inequality in income and wealth), it is also vital to look at attitudes towards other types of inequality, such as health inequalities, gender inequalities and inequalities between ethnic or racial groups. As these different types of inequality have tended to be studied in isolation, there is value in bringing these disparate findings together to compare attitudes across inequality types.