Experimental Economics

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 278–308 | Cite as

It is Hobbes, not Rousseau: an experiment on voting and redistribution

  • Antonio Cabrales
  • Rosemarie Nagel
  • José V. Rodríguez Mora


We perform an experiment which provides a laboratory replica of some important features of the welfare state. In the experiment, all individuals in a group decide whether to make a costly effort, which produces a random (independent) outcome for each one of them. The group members then vote on whether to redistribute the resulting and commonly known total sum of earnings equally amongst themselves. This game has two equilibria, if played once. In one of them, all players make effort and there is little redistribution. In the other one, there is no effort and nothing to redistribute. A solution to the repeated game allows for redistribution and high effort, sustained by the threat to revert to the worst of these equilibria. Our results show that redistribution with high effort is not sustainable. The main reason for the absence of redistribution is that rich agents do not act differently depending on whether the poor have worked hard or not. The equilibrium in which redistribution may be sustained by the threat of punishing the poor if they do not exert effort is not observed in the experiment. Thus, the explanation of the behavior of the subjects lies in Hobbes, not in Rousseau.


Redistribution Political equilibrium Voting Multiple equilibria Experiments 

JEL Classification

C72 C92 D72 E24 H24 I31 O38 


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Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Economic Science Association 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Antonio Cabrales
    • 1
    • 2
  • Rosemarie Nagel
    • 3
  • José V. Rodríguez Mora
    • 2
    • 4
  1. 1.Departamento de EconomíaUniversidad Carlos III de MadridGetafeSpain
  2. 2.CEPRLondonUK
  3. 3.ICREA & Universitat Pompeu FabraBarcelonaSpain
  4. 4.University of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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