Egalitarian Myths in New Zealand: A Review of Public Opinion Data on Inequality and Redistribution

By Skilling, Peter | New Zealand Sociology, April 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Egalitarian Myths in New Zealand: A Review of Public Opinion Data on Inequality and Redistribution


Skilling, Peter, New Zealand Sociology


Abstract

Economic inequality in developed western countries, including New Zealand, is a pressing social issue. Besides concerns of fairness, current high levels of inequality are associated with a range of socially damaging consequences. Drawing on new and existing data, this article presents a summary and an analysis of New Zealanders' beliefs about economic inequality and political redistribution. It explicates and explores some apparent puzzles and paradoxes within the data, including the divergence found between respondents' (declining, but still substantial) level of concern about economic inequality and their (much more limited) support for specific measures that would reduce that inequality. The article discusses some key factors that appear to influence opinion on inequality and redistribution, and it concludes with suggestions for future research to further explore some of the puzzles within the existing data.

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Introduction

Inequalities of wealth and income in western countries, including New Zealand, have increased significantly over the last thirty years (OECD, 2008, 2011a; B. Perry, 2012). An important aspect of this trend has been the 'hyperconcentration of wealth and income'(Hacker & Pierson, 2010: 15-18): the increasing share going to those at the very top of the distribution (Atkinson & Leigh, 2005; Saez, 2012). This hyperconcentration has received greater public attention recently through high-profile public protests - most notably those of the worldwide 'Occupy' movement - and through increased media scrutiny (Collins, 2011; Ramesh, 2011)1. Neither has this renewed focus on inequality been restricted to voices from the political left. David Cameron, The Economist, the OECD and The Financial Times have all raised concerns about some of the consequences of rampant inequality. Public and political disquiet often refers to recent scholarly work that has shown the connections between high levels of inequality and a wide range of destructive social consequences (Hacker & Pierson, 2010; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009), including a decrease in social mobility (Corak, 2009: 7; Hacker & Pierson, 2010: 28-29; OECD, 2011a: 40; Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009: 157-160), an erosion of social trust (Rothstein & Uslaner, 2005) and an undermining of democratic responsiveness (Bartels, 2008) and (thus, perhaps) political legitimacy (OECD, 2011b).

New Zealand public opinion (see the summaries presented in Edwards, 2010 and Humpage, 2008) appears to reflect the observations of Peter TaylorGooby in the United Kingdom. Taylor-Gooby (2013: 31, my emphasis) notes that 'during the past thirty years, incomes have grown more unequal, a small group at the top has captured a much greater share of resources, and poverty has increased' and yet 'most people have become ... markedly less likely to want government to redistribute income or tackle poverty' (see also Orton & Rowlingson, 2007b: 19-23). Why, despite the apparent harms associated with current high levels of economic inequality, do existing empirical studies indicate opposition to measures (higher levels of tax and redistributive welfare, or greater control of pre-tax incomes, for example) that might ameliorate these levels of inequality? This opposition seems particularly puzzling, given a plausible expectation in a democratic setting that 'the decisive swing voter ... [who] almost invariably has an income lower than the average income in society' would hold a rational self-interest in redistributive policies and greater equality (Hacker & Pierson, 2010: 77. On this 'median voter hypothesis' see also Stiglitz, 2012: 118 and, for a critical discussion, Lind, 2005.)

Questions of justice in distribution are some of the central questions of politics, if we accept Laswell's (1936) influential definition of politics as the question of who gets what, when and how. And while a wide range of data on public beliefs about the legitimacy of economic inequality exists - large-N surveys including the three-yearly New Zealand Election Study (NZES, from 1990-2011), the New Zealand Study of Values (NZSV, 1998, 2004 and 2008), relevant modules of the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP, 1992, 1999, 2006 and 2009) and the one-off New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey (NZAVS, 1986) all contribute to an understanding of public opinion - the data are patchy, with the wording of some questions changing over time, and some key questions not repeated at all. …

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