Friday, April 22, 2011

It depends

David Brooks recently wrote about a paper by James Lindgren which found that people who supported economic redistribution were more racially prejudiced and less tolerant than those who opposed redistribution.  That is the data suggested that support for redistribution was driven by resentment and envy rather than altruism or sensitivity to injustice.

I took a look myself, using the same data set Lindgren did (the General Social Survey), and he's on to something.  The GSS has been used a lot, so I'm sure someone else had run the relevant statistics before, but he seems to have been the first to notice that there's a definite pattern. Here are some correlations between answers to a question on whether the government should try to equalize wealth and income and some questions about race, tolerance for unpopular points of view, and general assessments of people (are they fair, can they be trusted, would they try to help).  The positive correlations mean that people who are opposed to redistribution tend to be more tolerant and optimistic.  (The words in capitals are the names the GSS uses for the questions).

People       .109
Tolerance    .123
RACFEW       .052
RACMAR       .106
RACPRES      .040
RACSEG       .071

But suppose you divide people into three groups based on educational level:  not a college graduate, college graduate, graduate degree.  Here are the correlations within each group:

           No Degree  BA    Graduate
People       .105    .011   .001
Tolerance    .126   -.041  -.111
RACFEW       .057   -.034  -.068
RACMAR       .094   -.017  -.023
RACPRES      .028   -.036  -.057
RACSEG       .067   -.068  -.116

The relationship changes with education.  Among people with less education, opposition to redistribution goes with tolerance and optimism; among people with more education, support for redistribution goes with tolerance (and there's essentially no association between views of people and views of redistribution).  Most people aren't college graduates, so the pattern among people as a whole is most like the pattern for people without a college degree. 

I thought of an interpretation of the pattern.  Altruists--people who care about others--will be more tolerant than selfish people.  Poor people who are altruists will tend to oppose redistribution, but affluent people who are altruists will tend to support it.  But that interpretation implies that the pattern would show up even more strongly if you divided people by income.  It doesn't--it's education that makes the difference, not income.


  1. I apologize for my ignorance, but I'm not following with what questions the capitalized letters correspond. For example, what questions does "RACFEW" refer to?

    I find your blog immensely interesting, but am having trouble wrapping my mind around this one.


  2. No need to apologize--I should have remembered that the GSS names aren't exactly common knowledge.

    RACFEW: "Would you yourself have any objection to sending your children to a school where a few of the children are [Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans]?

    RACMAR: "Do you think there should be laws against marriages between [Negroes/Blacks/African- Americans] and whites?"

    RACPRES: "If your party nominated a [Negro/Black/African-American] for President, would you vote for him if he were qualified for the job?"

    RACSEG: Agree or disagree with the statement "White people have a right to keep [Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans] out of their neighborhoods if they want to, and [Negroes/Blacks/African-Americans] should respect that right."

    So all of them represent racial prejudice. In general, people who are opposed to redistribution are less prejudiced. But among college graduates, people who FAVOR redistribution are less prejudiced.