Are the elite fundamentally different from other Americans, or do they simply have more money?
The results of a study from Yale and other universities suggest that “elites” — defined as such for enrollment in prestigious academic programs, above average wealth or both — differ from other groups beyond just the bank account. The study, published this month in the journal Science and conducted in conjunction with Yale Law School, concluded that elite Americans favor economic efficiency over economic equality, whereas other subjects did not. Researchers also found that affluent subjects more often acted out of self-interest than out of a sense of fair-mindedness.
A sample of elites, comprised in part by Yale Law School students, differed significantly from average Americans in their fiscal preferences. When given the choice between an equal distribution of resources and higher total payout, 79.8 percent of YLS students demonstrated a preference for the latter. Comparatively, only 49.8 percent of average Americans studied selected efficiency over equality.
This finding provides an explanation for why recent attempts to combat the rising levels of economic inequality in the United States have been so unsuccessful, despite public outrage and two two-term democratic presidencies, according to YLS professor Daniel Markovits ’91 LAW ’00, a co-author of the study.
“Quite possibly, when popular democratic administrations don’t redistribute aggressively, it’s not because they are afraid that if they do, the banks or somebody else will fund their opponents. They actually believe, in good faith, that the right thing to do is what they’re doing,” Markovits said. “That’s not demonstrated by this study, but it’s suggested by this study more strongly than by other work.”
Markovits and his colleagues conducted the study using the “dictator game,” a simulation common to behavioral economic research. In the game, a subjects is given control over a pot of money, then asked to distribute that pot between himself and an anonymous other.
But in this study, the test had an added twist: researchers varied how much it cost subjects to give money or retain it.
In some trials, subjects could be charged up to 90 cents for giving the money to the anonymous other. In others, this cost was reversed so that keeping the money reduced the total payout.
Because researchers could set the cost of redistribution at different levels in each experimental session, they could isolate subjects’ preferences for efficiency or selfinterest. Results held when researchers studied subjects from two other elite sample sets: undergraduates at the University of California at Berkeley and subjects who make more than $100,000 a year and have a graduate degree.
“This is not a law school effect, or a Yale effect,” Markovits said. “It’s an eliteness effect.”
All law students interviewed said they were unsurprised by the study results.
According to law student Conor Dwyer Reynolds LAW ’17, president of First Generation Professionals, a Yale Law affinity group for students who are the first in their families to pursue a professional degree, the study provides an important finding that will contribute to the growing discourse about class at the law school and beyond.
It is unsurprising that economic elites tend to prefer efficiency over equality outcomes, regardless of their partisan affiliation, Reynolds said.
“This paper fits in a trend of work that’s beginning to think deeply about not only how elites differ from non-elites, but also — and this is the important thing — how we should care about this because, after all, it is the elites who make decisions on behalf of the rest of us,” said sociology professor Nicholas Christakis ’84.
First Generation Professionals has planned a town hall-style forum to discuss the paper’s findings this week with Markovits. The meeting will only be open to students in the law school.