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How Norwegians and Americans See Inequality Differently

According to a recent study, the former are much less comfortable with luck determining well-being.

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Norway, like many European states, has public offerings many Americans would consider political fantasy. There is lengthy paid maternity leave, free university education, and long-term unemployment benefits. What is it about the Norwegian state—or about Scandinavian countries in general—that leads their populations to support redistribution policies in a way that Americans don’t?

A group of Scandinavian researchers recently did an experiment trying to tease that out. Their goal: to find out how social attitudes towards inequality in the U.S. and Norway differ, in an effort to explain why the two countries have such different redistribution policies. The difference, they discovered, hinges on how people think about luck and fairness.

“In Norway, people very much disapprove of inequalities that are due to bad luck,” Bertil Tungodden, a professor at the Norwegian School of Economics, and one of the paper’s authors, told me. “People in the U.S. are more willing to accept inequality, even if it reflects pure good luck for some and pure bad luck for others.”

The researchers recruited a group of Americans and Norwegians online to complete a series of simple tasks including putting together sentences, and told them they’d be paid a basic fee plus a bonus. A second group of Americans and Norwegians recruited online—called spectators—was then asked to oversee the distribution of bonuses.

In one setting, spectators were told that the two workers had done the task equally well, but that, unless they intervened, one worker was going to get the whole bonus and the other worker was going to get no bonus. The spectators were then given the opportunity to redistribute the bonus more equally. In another setting, spectators were told that one worker had done the task better, and thus would get the whole bonus. Again, the spectators were given the chance to redistribute the bonuses. And in a third setting, spectators were told that both workers did the job equally well, and that one worker was going to get the bonus, but that if the spectators decided to redistribute the bonus, the amount available would be significantly reduced.

The purpose of setting up the experiment this way, Tungodden told me, was to find out spectators’ views about different sources of inequality. In the first setting, inequality was a result of luck: The workers both did the task well, but one just got lucky and received a bonus. In the second, inequality was a result of merit: One worker did the task better. And the third was to assess whether people were willing to eradicate inequality created by luck if doing so had costs: The bonus was lower if the spectators chose to redistribute it more fairly.

In the experiment, Americans were more willing to accept inequality if it’s a result of luck than Norwegians were. When both workers did the task well, but only one got the bonus (the first setting), half of Americans said they wanted to redistribute the bonus equally. By contrast, 78 percent of Norwegians did. “It’s an enormous difference in exactly the same situation in a willingness to accept brute luck,” Tungodden said. “Americans hold this view of, whatever comes to you, good for you.”

When inequality was a result of merit, on the other hand, people in both countries were willing to accept it. Just 15 percent of people in the U.S. and 36 percent of people in Norway redistributed the bonus in the second situation.

Together, this helps explain why Norway has a more robust welfare state than the U.S. does, Tungodden said. Norwegians believe that when someone is, by bad luck, born into a poor family, or is, by bad luck, thrust into poverty, that person should have help from others. U.S. residents are more split on this idea. This could be because Americans admire wealth and would be hesitant to implement policies that would hurt people who, by luck, are wealthy.

There were some differences in which demographics in each country were willing to redistribute the bonuses. Conservatives in both countries accepted inequality (resulting from either chance or effort) and did not redistribute. Higher-education Americans were more meritocratic than lower-education Americans, though in Norway, educational background did not make a difference in someone’s willingness to redistribute. Women in the United States were less likely to accept inequality resulting from either source, according to the experiment.

The experiment did not look at questions of race, which may be one reason the countries have differing views on welfare. As I’ve written before, white Americans tend to be more withholding when it comes to welfare if they believe the money is going to black Americans. It would be illuminating for another, similar study to be performed that looks at whether white people perceive luck as more or less fair if the beneficiary (or loser, as the case may be) is black.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, both Americans and Norwegians seemed willing to weather some costs of wealth redistribution. In the third setting, when spectators were told that the inequality was the result of luck, but that redistributing the bonus would have a significant cost, about equal numbers of Americans and Norwegians decided to redistribute. About 58 percent of Americans decided to redistribute in the third setting, compared to 76 percent of Norwegians.

This is significant, Tungodden says, because it shows that people in both countries are more concerned about whether inequalities are fair than about whether there are costs to redistribution. Debates about the costs of a welfare state and redistribution in America, then, may be beside the point. Costs don’t seem to be Americans’ big hang-up with redistribution. Rather, their opposition seems to go to an underlying acceptance of fate and the fortunes it brings.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

  • Alana Semuels
    Alana Semuels is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was previously a national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.