Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

What Drives Views on Government Redistribution and Anti-Capitalism: Envy or a Desire for Social Dominance?

41 Pages Posted: 20 Nov 2006 Last revised: 16 Mar 2011

Date Written: March 15, 2011


In debates over the roles of law and government in promoting the equality of income or in redistributing the fruits of capitalism, widely different motives are attributed to those who favor or oppose capitalism or income redistribution. According to one view, largely accepted in the academic social psychology literature (Jost et al. 2003), opposition to income redistribution and support for capitalism reflect an orientation toward social dominance, a desire to dominate other groups. According to another view that goes back at least to the nineteenth century origins of Marxism, anti-capitalism and a support for greater legal efforts to redistribute income reflect envy for the property of others and a frustration with one’s lot in a capitalist system.

In this paper I expand and test the social dominance thesis using sixteen nationally representative General Social Surveys conducted by the National Opinion Research Center between 1980 and 2004. Because few questions of interest were asked in most years or of most respondents, the sample sizes used for analyses vary from 535 to 15,743.

I first show that respondents who express traditionally racist views (on segregation, interracial marriage, and inborn racial abilities) tend to support greater income redistribution. Traditional racists also tend to oppose free-market capitalism and its consequences, wanting the government to guarantee jobs for everyone and fix prices, wages, and profits. Next, I report a similar pattern for those who express intolerance for unpopular groups on the fifteen Stouffer tolerance questions (regarding racists, homosexuals, communists, extreme militarists, and atheists). Those who express less tolerance for unpopular groups tend to favor income redistribution and oppose capitalism.

Then I present the results of six full latent variable structural equation models. The latent variables traditional racism (Model 1: r=.27) and intolerance (Model 2: r=.31) predict the latent variable income redistribution. Similarly, the latent variables traditional racism (Model 3: r=.33) and intolerance (Model 4: r=.36) predict anti-capitalism. Controlling for education, income (log), gender, and age (Models 5 and 6), the effects of the racism and intolerance predictors on redistribution and intolerance are reduced, but remain significant. Thus the preference against income redistribution, for example, is not just the result of income or education - rather, the data are consistent with racism and intolerance continuing to play a small, but significant role in explaining the support for income redistribution and anti-capitalism. The data are broadly inconsistent with the standard belief in the social psychology literature that pro-capitalist and anti-redistributionist views are positively associated with racism.

I then explore an alternative hypothesis, showing that, compared to anti-redistributionists, strong redistributionists have about two to three times higher odds of reporting that in the prior seven days they were angry, mad at someone, outraged, sad, lonely, and had trouble shaking the blues. Similarly, anti-redistributionists had about two to four times higher odds of reporting being happy or at ease. Not only do redistributionists report more anger, but they report that their anger lasts longer. When asked about the last time they were angry, strong redistributionists were more than twice as likely as strong opponents of leveling to admit that they responded to their anger by plotting revenge. Last, both redistributionists and anti-capitalists expressed lower overall happiness, less happy marriages, and lower satisfaction with their financial situations and with their jobs or housework.

Further, in the 2002 and 2004 General Social Surveys anti-redistributionists were generally more likely to report altruistic behavior. In particular, those who opposed more government redistribution of income were much more likely to donate money to charities, religious organizations, and political candidates. The one sort of altruistic behavior that the redistributionists were more likely to engage in was giving money to a homeless person on the street.

Evidence from sixteen national representative samples from 1980 through 2004 tends to suggest that Social Dominance Orientation has been in part misconceived. In the United States, segments of the academic community seem to have reversed the relationship between pro-capitalism and income redistribution on the one hand, and racism and intolerance on the other. Those who support capitalism and oppose greater income redistribution tend to be better educated, to have higher family incomes, to be less traditionally racist, and to be less intolerant of unpopular groups. Those who oppose greater redistribution also tend to be more generous in donating to charities and more likely to engage in some other altruistic behavior. The academic assumption that anti-capitalism and opposition to income redistribution reflect an orientation toward social dominance seems unwarranted.

Keywords: Dominance, SDO, Racism, Intolerance, Capitalism, Altruism, Charity, Emotions

Suggested Citation

Lindgren, James, What Drives Views on Government Redistribution and Anti-Capitalism: Envy or a Desire for Social Dominance? (March 15, 2011). Northwestern Law & Economics Research Paper No. 06-10; Northwestern Public Law Research Paper No. 06-29. Available at SSRN: or

James T. Lindgren (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
773-294-9043 (Phone)

Paper statistics

Abstract Views