Social Choice and Welfare

, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 765–792 | Cite as

The tyranny puzzle in social preferences: an empirical investigation

  • Frank A. Cowell
  • Marc Fleurbaey
  • Bertil Tungodden


When forming their preferences about the distribution of income, rational people may be caught between two opposite forms of “tyranny.” Giving absolute priority to the worst-off imposes a sort of tyranny on the rest of the population, but giving less than absolute priority imposes a reverse form of tyranny where the worst-off may be sacrificed for the sake of small benefits to many well-off individuals. We formally show that this intriguing dilemma is more severe than previously recognised, and we examine how people negotiate such conflicts with a questionnaire-experimental study. Our study shows that both tyrannies are rejected by a majority of the participants, which makes it problematic for them to define consistent distributive preferences on the distribution.

JEL Classification

H20 H21 



We are grateful to Yinfei Dong for research assistance. The survey in Norway was administered by The Choice Lab, Norwegian School of Economics. We are grateful to audiences in London, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve for comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Frank A. Cowell
    • 1
  • Marc Fleurbaey
    • 2
  • Bertil Tungodden
    • 3
  1. 1.London School of EconomicsLondonUK
  2. 2.Princeton UniversityPrincetonUSA
  3. 3.Norwegian School of EconomicsBergenNorway

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