The Role of Expressive Versus Instrumental Preferences in U.S. Attitudes Toward Taxation and Redistribution

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Helmut P. Gaisbauer, Gottfried Schweiger and Clemens Sedmak (eds.)Philosophical Explorations of Justice and TaxationIus Gentium: Comparative Perspectives on Law and Justice4010.1007/978-3-319-13458-1_11

11. The Role of Expressive Versus Instrumental Preferences in U.S. Attitudes Toward Taxation and Redistribution

Kirk J. Stark 

School of Law, University of California, LA, Hilgard Avenue 405, 90095 Los Angeles, CA, USA



Kirk J. Stark


Polling data suggest that Americans are concerned about rising economic inequality, yet the same polls reveal popular opposition to redistributive tax policies that would help mitigate inequality. Numerous commentators have drawn attention to this paradox, attempting to explain why voters would support policies contrary to their pecuniary interests. This chapter connects the debate over U.S. tax attitudes with research on the role of expressive preferences in electoral choice. An expressive account of political behaviour emphasizes the low likelihood that any one voter’s views will influence policy outcomes and thus locates her cost-benefit calculus in the expression itself rather than its effect on policy outcomes. Expressive considerations include the reputational consequences of taking sides in popular debates, especially as those consequences bear on the voter’s effort to portray herself to the people that matter in her life—her family, friends, co-workers, and most of all, herself. The author explains how an expressive account resolves the supposed “paradox” of popular opposition to redistributive tax policies and discusses the implications of this view for U.S. tax politics.

11.1 Introduction

In his 1835 treatise on American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the redistributive activity of government, through taxes and spending, was likely to increase with the extension of the franchise to persons less capable of sharing in the cost. “As the great majority of those who create the laws are possessed of no property upon which taxes can be imposed,” he wrote, “all the money which is spent for the community appears to be spent to their advantage, at no cost of their own” (de Tocqueville 1835). Presaging the insights of public choice theory a century plus later, de Tocqueville was suggesting a seemingly inescapable political logic of redistribution—as the number of voters with below average income grows, democracy through majority rule, especially when coupled with universal suffrage, should result in a greater redistribution of income. This logic was later formalized and incorporated into an influential theory of democracy and redistribution (Meltzer and Richard 1981).

Something akin to de Tocqueville’s political logic of redistribution underlies the sense of puzzlement expressed by many twenty-first century observers of American tax politics. In ongoing debates about various redistributive tax policies, it is commonly described as “perplexing” or “baffling” when beneficiaries of redistribution indicate opposition to policies that would benefit them (Sheffrin 2013). Numerous examples from the U.S. political experience illustrate this phenomenon—e.g., grassroots enthusiasm for property tax revolts, popular antagonism toward the estate tax, middle-class support for tax cuts chiefly benefiting the wealthy. The supposed irony of these political stances was captured with hilarious satirical precision in a 2003 Nick Anderson cartoon showing Homer Simpson celebrating his own meager $ 2 tax cut, while his wealthy boss, Mr. Burns, quietly gathers several bags full of tax cut savings, muttering “Sucker…” under his breath. The research of political scientist Larry Bartels has provided some empirical substantiation for the intuition behind the Homer Simpson cartoon. Interpreting survey data on popular attitudes toward the 2001 tax cuts supported by the George W. Bush administration, Bartels concluded that “it appears that the strong plurality support for Bush’s tax cut … is entirely attributable to simple ignorance” (Bartels 2005, p. 24).

The notion that those benefitting from redistribution should support it—or that their failure to do so is attributable to ignorance—is based on the assumption that voters will generally favour policies consistent with their economic self interest, what some commentators have termed the “self-interested voter hypothesis” (SIVH) (Caplan 2008). When that assumption appears not to hold, or obtains only in the most short-sighted sense as in the case of popular support for the Bush tax cuts, we are left shaking our heads in some mixture of pity and disbelief. Our incredulity is only intensified by the increasing disparities in wealth and income over the past half century and the concomitant hollowing out of the middle class through the polarization of labour market opportunities (Piketty 2014; Autor and Dorn 2013). Polling data suggest that Americans are in fact concerned about rising economic inequality, yet the same polls often reveal popular opposition to redistributive tax policies that would help mitigate the effects of that inequality. It is no surprise that we feel perplexed or baffled by these apparent contradictions. Like Bartels, we may find ourselves asking, “Why do millions of ordinary Americans support massive tax breaks for the rich in an era of accelerating economic inequality?” More generally, on questions of taxation and redistribution, why do American voters so often seem to vote against their economic self interest?

My purpose in this chapter is not to answer these questions, but rather to suggest an alternative narrative that puts popular attitudes toward redistributive taxes in a somewhat different light. This alternative perspective takes issue with a second assumption, one that works hand in hand with the self-interested voter hypothesis described above. This second assumption is that political behaviour, including the expression of beliefs through voting, answering a survey, or otherwise, is motivated chiefly by a desire to produce a certain outcome in public policy. If this assumption holds, and voter behaviour is indeed driven by a desire to influence policy outcomes, then our sense of puzzlement at popular support for tax breaks for the wealthy may well be justified. After all, the outcome preferred is one that chiefly benefits a wealthy minority and may well carry with it indirect costs to the non-wealthy voter in terms of reduced government services or a less favourable distribution of the remaining tax burden. Thus, to the extent that one assumes that voter behaviour is driven by a desire to produce outcomes, one might reasonably regard as puzzling or perplexing the apparent support among ordinary Americans of significant tax reductions for the wealthy.

But influencing outcomes may not be the only, or even a primary, motivation for political behaviour. Popular attitudes, whether registered at the voting booth, captured in survey instruments, or shouted across the kitchen table, often have an important expressive dimension, providing a means for individuals to associate themselves with a certain set of beliefs, ideas and preferences. Rather than focusing on how a particular policy outcome may affect voters, an expressive account of political behaviour emphasizes the utility that voters derive from the expression itself. Under an expressive account, self interest is determined not by the effects of policy outcomes (which after all will come about, or not, regardless of any single voter’s actions) but rather by the immediate and tangible consequences of taking sides in popular debates, especially as those consequences bear on the voter’s effort to portray herself to the people that matter in her life—her family, friends, co-workers, and most of all, herself. Salient considerations might include how a given opinion or vote will contribute to one’s reputation as being charitable, self-reliant, open-minded or ambitious—to name just a few possibilities. In an age of digital social media, one’s expressive utility might turn on how many “likes” a Facebook post got, or how many times a tax tweet was retweeted. Depending on the context and the nature of the issue about which an opinion is being expressed, we might even expect these considerations of reputation and self-portrayal to overwhelm any thoughts the voter might have about actually influencing policy outcomes. The relative significance of expressive considerations will also be greater when the likelihood of influencing outcomes is small, as will typically be the case with regard to questions of national policy.

The insight that voter behaviour is undertaken for its expressive value has been around quite a while and has formed the basis of important and interesting work at the intersection of political science and economics. Within the literature on expressive preferences, there is even some discussion of how the pursuit of expressive (as opposed to instrumental, outcome-related) benefits might shape the politics of redistribution. Nevertheless the importance of this perspective to the question of how we should understand U.S. popular attitudes toward taxation and redistribution has not been given the attention it deserves. In this essay I hope to take a step in the direction of filling that gap. Section A begins with a brief survey of popular attitudes toward economic inequality and redistributive taxes, highlighting the often puzzling contradictions in survey results that many authors have identified. Section B discusses the concept of expressive utility and the circumstances under which voters might be expected to vote in accordance with their expressive preferences rather than their instrumental preferences. Finally, Section C extends the analysis to the context of taxation and redistribution, describing how an expressive account of voter behaviour might help explain U.S. popular attitudes thought to be puzzling within an instrumental framework.

11.2 American Attitudes Toward Inequality and Redistributive Taxation

The rise of inequality in income and wealth beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century has been a subject of extensive empirical investigation and debate across numerous disciplines. Indeed, it is hard to identify a topic that has received as much interdisciplinary attention in the past quarter century. Yet the attention on these issues has by no means been limited to the expert community. As Thomas Piketty notes in his recent book on the subject,

The distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing. … Peasant and noble, worker and factory owner, waiter and banker: each has his or her own unique vantage point and sees important aspects of how other people live and what relations of power and domination exist between social groups, and these observations shape each person’s judgment of what is and is not just. Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate. (Piketty 2014)

Of course, in a democratic setting, the “subjective and psychological dimension to inequality” should be expected to play an especially important role, exerting pressure on elected representatives to respond to popular sentiments. Thus, it is no surprise that just as research on economic inequality itself has increased, so too has research on popular perceptions of inequality, as well as popular opinion regarding what (if anything) should be done in response to changes in the distribution of economic resources.

Political scientist Larry Bartels, author of the Homer Gets a Tax Cut study mentioned above, provides a useful summary of U.S. attitudes toward inequality, redistribution, and tax policy in his 2008 book on the subject, which includes and extends the earlier study (Bartels 2008). Bartels reviews National Election Study (NES) survey results over a 20 year period covering 1984–2004. Three key findings highlighted in Bartels’ analysis warrant emphasis here.

First, on the question of popular support for broadly stated “egalitarian values” there appears to be very strong agreement across the population. Nearly 90 % of respondents indicate some measure of agreement (60.2 % agree strongly, 27.5 % agree somewhat) with the statement, “Our society should do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.” Of course this statement leaves open several important questions, such as whether “our society” includes government (and if so which level of government), what constitutes an “equality opportunity to succeed” and what sort of metric might help us decide whether everyone has such an opportunity. Surely there are significant cleavages in public opinion regarding those important details. Nevertheless, the willingness of such a strong majority to express agreement with this statement suggests a remarkable level of popular support for egalitarian values at a broad conceptual level.

Second, the NES surveys for 2002 and 2004 also included a question designed to determine the degree of popular awareness of changes in economic inequality over the previous 20 years, the general magnitude of those changes, as well as how those changes should be regarded. More specifically, the survey asked, “Do you think the difference in incomes between rich people and poor people in the United States is larger, smaller, or about the same as it was 20 years ago?” The survey results reveal that a significant majority of respondents (75.7 %) believe that the gap between rich and poor is either “much larger” (44.3 %) or “somewhat larger” (31.4 %). As to how these changes in the distribution of income should be regarded, 43.8 % of respondents indicated that the gap between rich and poor was larger and that this increased gap was “a bad thing” (Bartels 2008). While not as robust as the general endorsement for addressing equality of opportunity, this strong plurality support for the notion that increased inequality is a bad thing again would suggest that policies targeted at reducing the income gap between rich and poor would resonate with many ordinary Americans.

A third feature of the NES survey results identified by Bartels relates specifically to the distribution of tax burdens. In surveys conducted in both 2002 and 2004, a majority of respondents (55.9 %) indicated that “rich people” pay less than they should in federal income taxes, and a plurality of respondents (44.9 %) indicated that “poor people” pay more than they should. Again, these data might be interpreted in a number of ways, but Bartels is surely correct in noting that “if taken at face value, they seem to demonstrate substantial public support for increasing, rather than decreasing, the progressivity of the tax system” (Bartels 2008, p. 140). In combination, then, these three findings provide support for the following statements: (1) almost all Americans are strongly committed to ensuring equality of opportunity, (2) a strong plurality of Americans believes that economic inequality has increased and that this is a bad thing, and (3) substantial support exists for using the tax system to shift a greater federal income tax burden to the rich.

These findings are largely consistent with those identified by sociologist Leslie McCall, whose work also focuses on American beliefs regarding inequality and redistribution. In her 2013 book, McCall considers three separate questions that appear over several years in the Social Inequality Modules of the General Social Survey (GSS) and the International Social Survey Program (ISSP). Like many of the questions from the NES surveys, these opinion polls also ask respondents to indicate their agreement or disagreement with particular statements (including options for neither, as well as strong agreement or disagreement). The three statements highlighted by McCall are: (1) differences in income in America are too large, (2) inequality continues to exist because it benefits the rich and powerful, and (3) large differences in income are necessary for America’s prosperity. As McCall explains, GSS/ISSP survey results over a period of 24 years suggest consistent majority support (that is, combined responses indicating “agreement” and “strong agreement”) for the first two statements, as well as strong plurality support, with majority support in some years, for the third statement. These data lead McCall to the conclusion that “half to two-thirds of Americans accepted neither the current level of income inequality nor its stated rationale as a driver of economic prosperity that benefits all Americans and not just the rich and powerful” (McCall 2013).

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