Divide and Deal: The Politics of Distribution in Democracies

Divide and Deal: The Politics of Distribution in Democracies

Divide and Deal: The Politics of Distribution in Democracies

Divide and Deal: The Politics of Distribution in Democracies

Synopsis

Why are democracies so unequal? Despite the widespread expectation that democracy, via expansion of the franchise, would lead to redistribution in favor of the masses, in reality majorities regularly lose out in democracies. Taking a broad view of inequality as encompassing the distribution of wealth, risk, status, and well-being, this volume explores how institutions, individuals, and coalitions contribute to the often surprising twists and turns of distributive politics. The contributors hail from a range of disciplines and employ an array of methodologies to illuminate the central questions of democratic distributive politics: What explains the variety of welfare state systems, and what are their prospects for survival and change? How do religious beliefs influence people's demand for redistribution? When does redistributive politics reflect public opinion? How can different and seemingly opposed groups successfully coalesce to push through policy changes that produce new winners and losers? The authors identify a variety of psychological and institutional factors that influence distributive outcomes. Taken together, the chapters highlight a common theme: politics matters. In seeking to understand the often puzzling contours of distribution and redistribution, we cannot ignore the processes of competition, bargaining, building, and destroying the political alliances that serve as bridges between individual preferences, institutions, and policy outcomes.

Excerpt

Ian Shapiro, Peter A. Swenson, and Daniela Donno

Wealthy people used to find democracy frightening. The reason was simple: the poor, once enfranchised, should be expected to soak the rich. This fear bred elite resistance to expanding the franchise, particularly beyond the propertied classes. Nor did this fear, and the reasoning behind it, go unnoticed on the political left. The failure of the revolutions of 1830 and 1848 to radicalize Europe's working classes sobered Marx, leading him— in later years—to endorse the “parliamentary road to socialism.” Fighting for democracy might not be such a bad idea. Perhaps the workers would do through the ballot box what they had not done at the barricades. And this expectation of democracy was not limited to the nineteenth century. Millions of marginalized citizens greeted the “third wave” of democracy that swept across the global South in the last decades of the twentieth century with jubilation and hope. Political equality, it was widely believed, would naturally enhance economic equality.

Much academic writing has also assumed that majority rule with a universal franchise would lead to economic redistribution—at least in countries where income and wealth are as unequally distributed as they are in modern capitalist systems. Meltzer and Richard (1981) formalized this intuition through the median voter theorem, which holds that economic policy will reflect the preferences of the voter located at the median point of the income distribution. Given an unequal starting point and self-interested voters, it seemed to stand to reason that downward redistribution would continue until the income of the median voter reached that of the mean. Although appealing for its parsimony and its intuitive predictions, the median voter theorem has proven strikingly unsuccessful . . .

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