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Is Inequality Harmful for Growth? Theory and Evidence


  • Torsten Persson
  • Guido Tabellini


Is inequality harmful for growth? We suggest that it is. To summarize our main argument: in a society where distributional conflict is more important, political decisions are more likely to produce economic policies that allow private individuals to appropriate less of the returns to growth promoting activities, such as accumulation of capital and productive knowledge. In the paper we first formulate a theoretical model that formally captures this idea. The model has a politico-economic equilibrium, which determines a sequence of growth rates depending on structural parameters, political institutions, and initial conditions. We then confront the testable empirical implications with two sets of data. A first data set pools historical evidence-which goes back to the mid 19th century-from the US and eight European countries. A second data set contains post-war evidence from a broad cross-section of developed and less developed countries. In both samples we find a statistically significant and quantitatively important negative relation between inequality and growth. After a comprehensive sensitivity analysis, we conclude that our findings are not distorted by measurement error, reverse causation, hetroskedasticity, or other econometric problems.

Suggested Citation

  • Torsten Persson & Guido Tabellini, 1991. "Is Inequality Harmful for Growth? Theory and Evidence," NBER Working Papers 3599, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:3599
    Note: ME EFG ITI IFM

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    18. Summers, Robert & Heston, Alan, 1988. "A New Set of International Comparisons of Real Product and Price Levels Estimates for 130 Countries, 1950-1985," Review of Income and Wealth, International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, vol. 34(1), pages 1-25, March.
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    JEL classification:

    • D30 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - General
    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy
    • H30 - Public Economics - - Fiscal Policies and Behavior of Economic Agents - - - General


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