When Do Humans Want to Share the Wealth?

Jonathan Haidt reports an interesting experimental result:

Two three-year-olds walk up to a marble-delivery machine that has two bins. Each stands in front of one bin. Three scenarios:

1. One bin has three marbles in it, the other has one: the winner is unlikely to share to equalize the takings.

2. There are two ropes to pull; one delivers one marble, the other three: the winner is unlikely to share to equalize the takings.

3. Two ropes, but both must be pulled together to deliver the one/three marbles: the winner is likely (75%!) to share to equalize the takings. (Either spontaneously, or on request from the loser.)

If people feel that they must work together to get the goods, they also feel that they should (or even want to) share the goods.

Haidt’s take (my emphasis):

If there’s a problem with the ultra-rich, it’s not that they have too much wealth, it’s that they bought laws that made it easy for them to gain and keep so much more wealth in recent decades.

Sarah Palin gave a speech last September lambasting “crony capitalism,” which she defined as “the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest – to the little guys.” I think that she was on to something and that she was right to include big government along with big business and big finance. The problem isn’t that some kids have many more marbles than others. The problem is that some kids are in cahoots with the experimenters. They get to rig the marble machine before the rest of us have a chance to play with it.

Now add this:

The losers know the game is rigged, so their innate intution tells them that the winners should share.

The winners refuse to know that the game is rigged — deny it vehemently — so they think the losers are unreasonable in their expectations of sharing.

Contributing: The American cult of individualism — the widespread belief among the successful that their success is a result of their efforts only, so they deserve their winnings — means that their natural human work-together-share-together instincts aren’t invoked. This even when they’re wrong about the relative contribution of their individual efforts.

So the winners are deluded about two things: 1. the relative contribution of their individual efforts (compared to A. luck and B. the rules/playing field), and 2. the (rigged) state of the playing field.

Here’s the problem: the losers are also deluded about #1 (because the rigged game provides the winners with the necessary resources to delude them through tens of billions of dollars of propaganda and economist-buying).

So here’s the rhetorical challenge faced by those who seek greater equality: convince the losers that much or most of the winners’ success is in fact the result of everyone pulling on ropes together (and luck), not just the winners’ industrious rope-pulling. Not an easy task, but one worth focusing on.

To add, a problem with Haidt’s analysis: if big business and big finance (and rich people) couldn’t buy big government to rig the game in their own favor, big government wouldn’t be the problem. Absent that buy, government is essentially indifferent to relative distributions — or arguably even more inclined to sharing the wealth widely to garner lots of votes — one person one vote versus one dollar one vote.

He suggests a three-way symmetry for a situation that is not symmetrical.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

 

  1. beowulf
    March 18th, 2012 at 17:30 | #1

    Interesting point. Palin’s speechwriter is Peter Schweizer whose recent book Throw Them All Out is clearly the catalyst for the bill banning congressional insider trading that’s about to pass (astonishing its legal now).
    Also, John Carney’s brother Tim is a conservative Washington Examiner columnist who’s been attacking crony capitalism for years.
    http://campaign2012.washingtonexaminer.com/article/gop-field-takes-aim-crony-capitalism-finally

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