When is redistribution popular? When people first see social conflict rising, apparently. Useful new research.

May 30, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

This recent ODI paper by Laura Rodriguez Takeuchi made my head hurt (heavy on methodology, light on narrative, for my taste) but I think it’s worth persevering with.

Analysing perception data for over 15,000 individuals in 40 countries, it arrives at two main findings:

1. Perceptions of social conflict have a strong influence on people’s demand for redistribution, even stronger than the effect of perceptions of fairness and social mobility.

2. However, the effects seem to be stronger at lower levels of inequality and in countries with lower social conflict, suggesting that people may adapt to

Time to change the system?

Time to change the system?

higher inequality and adjust their demand to redistribution accordingly.

Its policy conclusion?

Governments and policy-makers interested in acting upon inequality need to act quickly when inequality is starting to rise in order to capitalise the support towards redistributive policies.

The first conclusion makes sense. After all, it’s pretty clear that conflict in general is a driver of change, and some big exercises in redistribution came out of domestic civil unrest rather than war or economic crisis (Malaysia after race riots in 1969, Sweden after massive labour unrest in the 1920s).

But the finding that conflict matters more than unfairness in creating public demand for redistribution raises important questions for campaigners. It may be that merely highlighting injustice, e.g. declining social mobility, does not disrupt the political and economic system sufficiently to allow a redistributive political coalition to form. I’m not suggesting that we start promoting social conflict – there is a role for more peaceful activism in building awareness both on problems and solutions. But we may have to wait for social conflict to come along as a catalyst, before all that hard work pays off. And it’s one more argument for campaigners to be embedded in national politics so that they quickly identify and respond to looming conflicts as windows of opportunity.

boiling frogI don’t know what to make of the second bullet, which seems to be a boiling frog argument – people respond politically to social conflict in the early stages, but then grow less sensitive to it, either because they just get used to it, or because when their personal roof doesn’t fall in, their initial fears evaporate.

Does that ring true with readers’ experience?



May 30, 2014
Duncan Green