Comparative Public Opinion on Distributive Justice

By Listhaug, Ola; Aalberg, Toril | International Journal of Comparative Sociology, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Comparative Public Opinion on Distributive Justice

Listhaug, Ola, Aalberg, Toril, International Journal of Comparative Sociology


A Study of Equality Ideals and Attitudes toward Current Policies [*]


The Thatcher and Reagan revolutions initiated a decade of pro-market reforms in a large number of countries. The decade of liberalism was capped by the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe. In the countries where the Left remained in power, most notably in the form of social democracy, a similar shift was observed -- reforms that abolished state ownership and government regulation and introduced market principles were introduced. In many countries new inequities grew as a consequence of shifts in policy. We have investigated if public opinion has reacted against the policy direction by putting a renewed emphasis on egalitarian goals and increasing the support for government intervention. Alternatively, a hypothesis of adaption sees mass opinion as adjusting to the shifts of the policy elites. The main finding based on analysis of data from the International Social Survey Programme is stability, but with a slight increase in a pro-equality direction. This change is most pervasive in the United States, maki ng this country less exceptional in public policy preferences than what the conventional wisdom suggests. The cross-national patterns of equality beliefs show that the publics of the former communist nations of Eastern Europe remain quite egalitarian in attitudes, demonstrating, at least for Poland and Hungary, where appropriate data are available, that the egalitarian attitudes did not disappear with the political regime.


THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE is to investigate the structure and dynamics of left-right ideology across nations. Using recent survey data we try to answer two research questions. First, do cross-nationa1 variations in left-right attitudes confirm the views of prevailing models of comparative sociology? Second, how responsive is left-right ideology to changes in policy at the elite level?

Much can be said about the content and proper meaning of the left-right dimension (Fuchs and Klingemann, 1990), but few will argue against the idea that the publics' concerns about issues of socio-economic equality and scope of government intervention constitute the core of the concept. Knutsen (1995) labels this as left-right materialist value orientations. Left is associated with ideological positions that favor a high degree of equality (of result) and support of government intervention in the economy. Right indicates beliefs that accept a high degree of inequalities of outcomes (although equality of opportunity can be advocated) and is negative of government intervention in economic life. While most research is concerned about antecedents and consequences of these orientations within a given country, an interesting body of literature has accumulated on cross-national variations in left-right beliefs. We review some of the most relevant literature and propose specific hypotheses that we confront with comp arative survey data on social inequality and role of government. The data analysis will extend previous research in two directions. First, we use the largest and most recently available data set to assess equality beliefs across 18 countries. Second, we study -- for a subset of the countries -- how these attitudes have evolved in the period 1987-1992, with some additional analyses for the years 1985 and 1990. The focus of the comparison across time is on the interplay between policy shifts of government and the attitudinal response at the mass level: Do attitudes shift in line with the implemented polices or do they react against the prevailing policy enforcements?

Previous research has suggested a large number of cross-national patterns and many factors to account for them. (For a somewhat more extended review of issues of comparative public opinion, see Listhaug [1995].) The most famous statement about cross-national contrasts in egalitarian ideals is the idea of an American exceptionalism. …

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