Inequality, Welfare and Income Distribution: Experimental Approaches: Volume 11


Table of contents

(13 chapters)

The emerging literature on experimental methods in connection with economic inequality has shed fresh light on how to think about inequality, how important issues of equality are in comparison with other economic objectives and how individuals incorporate criteria of equality and fairness into their own decisions.

We run income inequality questionnaire in 17 universities in the USA. In the questionnaire we examine how students of economics compare inequality of income distributions, when transfers are made between income recipients. The results are analysed in terms of several personal characteristics of the respondents: family income, ethnicity, sex, geographic origin, number of siblings, age, and by ranking of the universities.

Income redistribution and its consequences have been the subject of intense debate over the last three decades. This is nowhere better evidenced than in the motivations which are variously ascribed to such redistributions. The social welfare approach, for example, starts from the premise that redistribution of income from the rich to the poor enhances social welfare, a fact from which redistribution derives its motivation. In contrast Tullock (1983, p. 2) argues that the major impetus for income redistribution is simply that the beneficiaries of transfer programs want larger incomes and greater wealth and have the political power to realize their goals. Buchanan (1984, p. 187) finds a constitutional basis for redistribution arguing that, if the voting franchise is universal and the constitution allows collective decisions concerning income transfers, then the basic property right to income in a society inheres in the voting franchise.

In customer or labor markets raising prices or cutting wages is perceived as unfair if it results from the exploitation of shifts in demands. In a series of manipulations we show that adding an alternative to the original choice set alters the perception of fairness of the final outcome. Adding a worse alternative lowers the perception of unfairness, whereas adding a better alternative raises the perception of unfairness. These findings supplemented with existing experimental evidence cast doubt on purely outcome-based theories of fairness and suggest that fairness perceptions are highly manipulable.

Social mobility is an issue at the crossroad of various disciplines: sociology, statistics, political science and economics. We review alternative approaches to the analysis of intergenerational income mobility, and conduct a questionnaire aimed to reveal students’ opinions on some basic principles developed in the literature. The questionnaire includes questions focussed on: (a) the difference between structural and exchange mobility; (b) the decomposition of mobility tables into parameters linked to structural mobility and parameters linked to exchange mobility; (c) the effects of transformations of the status variables (incomes) on mobility comparisons. These issues have been formalized as hypotheses that can be formally tested by the questionnaire. We find various regularities in the data, but also some rejections of basic principles that require further scrutiny.

We present the results of a questionnaire study with Belgian undergraduate students as respondents. We consider the relationship between people’s direct ethical preferences, their preferences behind a veil of ignorance, and their purely individual risk preferences over income distributions. The results reveal that, although there are important similarities between the three types of preferences, the first and third types form two extremes, while the second type lies in between the other two. Consistency of response patterns with the expected utility (EU) and rank-dependent expected utility (RDEU) models – natural analogues of the social welfare functions most frequently used in the literature on inequality and social welfare – is tested as well. For all three types of preferences the results reveal that, in the considered context, the RDEU model does not add explanatory power to the EU model. However, preferences appear to be relatively well described by some of the basic concepts from non-expected utility theory not usually considered in the income distribution literature.

The “prospect of upward mobility” (POUM) hypothesis formalised by Benabou and Ok (2001a) finds explicit assumptions under which some individuals that are poorer than the average optimally choose to oppose redistribution policies. The underlying intuition is that these individuals rationally expect to be richer than average in the future. This result holds provided the mobility process is concave in expectations, redistribution policies are expected to last for a sufficiently long period and individuals are not too risk averse. This paper tests the POUM hypothesis by means of a within subjects experiment where the concavity of the mobility process, the degree of social mobility, the knowledge of personal income and the degree of inequality are used as treatments. Other determinants of the demand for redistribution, such as risk aversion and inequality aversion are (partially) controlled for via either the experiment design or the information collected during the experiment. We find that the POUM hypothesis holds under alternative specifications, even when we control for individual fixed effects.

This paper presents an experimental framework for separating the attitude toward inequality from the attitude toward risk. This exploratory experimental study examines the attitude toward inequality while keeping risk constant. The results support the hypothesis of inequality aversion only among middle-income subjects. More interestingly we found that higher equality motivates individuals to take more risk and challenge. This result is a counterpoint to the standard line that inequality is needed to encourage effort.

This paper suggests to combine different kind of “other-regarding” preferences as an approach to fair behavior which is observed in controlled experiments. We assert that participants in two-person experiments have a good will capital which may be described by altruistic preferences. These preferences guide a large fraction of participants when they have to make distributional choices in one-stage games. We further show that in games with more than one stage the previous action of the other person may cause reciprocal feelings in addition to the altruistic preferences. A friendly (unfriedly) act of the other person may increase (decrease) the good will capital of the participants. Upon these findings, we conclude that a combination of altruism and reciprocity is able to describe the variety of behavior in several experiments despite their differing strategic context.

The focus of this paper is on altruism and coordination among agents with different income levels. A special form of altruism (fairness based or ethical altruism) is investigated by means of experiments. The definition of altruism used here follows from A. Sen’s concept of obligation, i.e. behaviour that produces advantage for someone whose welfare is not important at all for the agent’s well-being. In this sense, the paper investigates altruism without reciprocity. A second hypothesis investigated is that the extent of ethical altruism is influenced by gender and by income differences within the population.

This paper presents the results of an experiment where an unequal wealth distribution was created and then subjects could act to change this wealth distribution. Subjects received money by betting and possibly by arbitrary (“undeserved”) gifts; they could then pay to reduce, redistribute and, in half of the sessions, steal money from others. The experimental results are incompatible with some standard models of interdependent preferences. Over 80% of redistributors were rank egalitarian, but how subjects perceived the problem significantly affected their redistribution activity: perceptions of fairness were not simply a matter of relative payoff, and changed according to whether a subject was undeservedly advantaged or otherwise.

Publication date
Book series
Research on Economic Inequality
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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