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The nexus between perceptions of inequality and preferences for redistribution

Abstract

This paper shows that perceptions of inequality are a key factor in the formation of preferences for redistribution and thereby in the determination of the equilibrium redistribution level. We build on the novel stylized facts provided by the survey experimental literature on perceptions of income inequality, highlighting that agents incorrectly estimate the shape of the income distribution because of limited information. Agents with income above the mean believe they are poorer than they actually are, and agents with income below the mean believe themselves to be richer. We revisit the standard framework on the political economy of redistribution and extend it in two ways. First, we introduce a more general two-sided inequality aversion. Second, we incorporate perceptions of income inequality, modeled by assuming that agents form expectations on the income level of the richest and the poorest in society. We show analytically that the equilibrium redistribution level is crucially determined by the interplay between the information treatment correcting the bias in perceptions of inequality and fairness considerations specified by the degree of inequality aversion. By doing this, we add (biased) perceptions of inequality to the list of potential factors explaining why, notwithstanding high inequality, an increase in the desire for redistribution has not been observed in many countries.

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Open access funding provided by NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology (incl St. Olavs Hospital - Trondheim University Hospital).

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Correspondence to Roberto Iacono.

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Iacono, R., Ranaldi, M. The nexus between perceptions of inequality and preferences for redistribution. J Econ Inequal 19, 97–114 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10888-020-09470-7

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Keywords

  • Meltzer-Richard model
  • Perceived inequality
  • Inequality aversion
  • Redistributive preferences