Research Article

The distributional preferences of an elite

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Science  18 Sep 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6254, aab0096
DOI: 10.1126/science.aab0096

Few thoughts for those with the most

A weighty scholarly tome has sparked a year-long public discussion of the unevenness of income and wealth distributions in the United States. In essence, a few people have a lot of both. Moral philosophers and economists have argued for centuries about the tradeoffs in life strategy that might explain wealth imbalance: between fairness and selfishness, and equality and efficiency. Fisman et al. describe the preferences of a group of elite students at Yale Law School. These elites lean toward selfishness and efficiency more than the average American, and these preferences are reflected in their job choices.

Science, this issue p. 10.1126/science.aab0096

Structured Abstract


Distributional preferences shape individual opinions and public policy concerning economic inequality and redistribution. We measured the distributional preferences of an elite cadre of Juris Doctor (J.D.) students at Yale Law School (YLS), a group that holds particular interest because they are likely to assume future positions of power and influence in American society. We compared the preferences of this highly elite group of students to those of a sample drawn from the American Life Panel (ALP), a broad cross-section of Americans, and to the preferences of an intermediate elite drawn from the student body at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB).


We conducted modified dictator game experiments that varied the price of redistribution, i.e., the amount by which the “self’s” payoff must be decreased in order to increase the payoff of the “other” (an anonymous other subject) by one dollar. In contrast to standard dictator games that do not vary the relative price of redistribution, our experimental design allows us to test whether our subjects’ preferences are formally rational and to decompose subjects’ preferences into two distinct tradeoffs: the tradeoff between self and other (fair-mindedness versus self-interest) and the tradeoff between equality and efficiency. For each subject, we estimated a constant elasticity of substitution (CES) utility function over payoffs to self and other; this functional form allows us to capture each tradeoff with a distinct parameter. A fair-minded subject places equal weight on the payoffs to self and other, whereas a selfish subject does not place any weight on the payoff to other; subjects’ preferences may also fall in between these two extremes. A subject with distributional preferences weighted toward equality (reducing differences in payoffs) increases the expenditure share spent on other as the price of redistribution increases, whereas a subject with distributional preferences weighted toward efficiency (increasing total payoffs) decreases the expenditure share spent on other as the price of redistribution increases. An important strength of our measure of equality-efficiency tradeoffs between self and other is that it has been shown to predict such tradeoffs in distributional settings involving multiple others and to predict the likelihood of voting for political candidates perceived as favoring greater government redistribution. This work therefore captures, in an experimental setting, a plausible measure of subjects’ attitudes toward actual redistributive policies.


YLS subjects were substantially more efficiency-focused than were the ALP subjects drawn from the general population. Overall, 79.8% of YLS subjects were efficiency-focused, versus only 49.8% of the ALP sample. The YLS subjects displayed this distinctive preference for efficiency over equality in spite of overwhelmingly (by more than 10 to 1) self-identifying as Democrats rather than Republicans. In addition, YLS subjects were less likely to be classified as fair-minded and more likely to be classified as selfish than were the ALP subjects. Subjects from the intermediate elite fell between the YLS and ALP subjects with respect to efficiency-mindedness but were less likely to be fair-minded and more likely to be selfish than were the YLS subjects. We also demonstrate the predictive validity of our experimental measure of equality-efficiency tradeoffs by showing that it predicts the subsequent career choices of YLS subjects: More efficiency-focused behavior in the laboratory was associated with a greater likelihood of choosing private sector employment after graduation, whereas more equality-focused behavior was associated with a greater likelihood of choosing nonprofit sector employment.


Our findings indicate sharp differences in distributional preferences between subjects of varying degrees of eliteness. These results provide a starting point for future research on the distinct preferences of the elite and differences in distributional preferences across groups more generally. From a policy perspective, our results suggest a new explanation for the modesty of the policy response to the rise in income inequality in the United States: Regardless of party, the policymaking elite is significantly more focused on efficiency vis-a-vis equality than is the U.S. public.

Classifying subjects’ distributional preferences.

We classify subjects as either fair-minded, intermediate, or selfish and as either equality-focused or efficiency-focused. The bars show the fraction of subjects in each category of self-interest in the elite YLS, UCB (the intermediate elite), and relatively less elite ALP samples. Each bar is then split into equality-focused and efficiency-focused subgroups, denoted by blue and gray, respectively.


We studied the distributional preferences of an elite cadre of Yale Law School students, a group that will assume positions of power in U.S. society. Our experimental design allows us to test whether redistributive decisions are consistent with utility maximization and to decompose underlying preferences into two qualitatively different tradeoffs: fair-mindedness versus self-interest, and equality versus efficiency. Yale Law School subjects are more consistent than subjects drawn from the American Life Panel, a diverse sample of Americans. Relative to the American Life Panel, Yale Law School subjects are also less fair-minded and substantially more efficiency-focused. We further show that our measure of equality-efficiency tradeoffs predicts Yale Law School students’ career choices: Equality-minded subjects are more likely to be employed at nonprofit organizations.

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