Can Joe the Plumber Support Redistribution? Law, Social Preferences, and Sustainable Policy Design

49 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2009 Last revised: 24 Mar 2010

Date Written: February 12, 2010

Abstract

This article explores how to build political support for law reform designed to achieve economic redistribution. Specifically, I analyze and compare reforms that aim to redistribute by targeting benefits at low-income individuals through an income or means test, versus those that emphasize “universal” allocation of benefits, not conditioned on poverty. I argue that notwithstanding that we should expect universal provision (by definition) to achieve less redistribution than means testing, universalist policies ultimately may be more effective in achieving this goal because they are likely to be more politically durable, and - more intriguingly - to create social conditions that increase toleration for redistribution. I support this argument by drawing upon the growing body of research in psychology and economics suggesting that people have a mixture of self-regarding and other-regarding impulses, and that some forms of social organization are more likely than others to elicit pro-social behavior. Universalist programs, I argue, plausibly increase preferences for redistribution by tapping social norms of reciprocity, generating group identity effects based on a sense of common vulnerability, and serving as a “policy frame” that de-emphasizes the salience of low-income people as an undeserving “out-group.” I use a case study of recent social insurance legislation as a springboard for developing an empirical research agenda that would help evaluate the strength of my thesis.

Suggested Citation

Lester, Gillian L. L., Can Joe the Plumber Support Redistribution? Law, Social Preferences, and Sustainable Policy Design (February 12, 2010). Tax Law Review, Vol. 64, 2011. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1461098 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1461098

Gillian L. L. Lester (Contact Author)

Columbia Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10009
212-854-2675 (Phone)

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