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Unequal Societies

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  • Roland Benabou

Abstract

This paper aims to explain the significant variations in the social contract observed across nations. It shows how countries with similar technologies and preferences, as well as equally democratic political systems, can sustain very different average and marginal tax rates. Similarly, it provides an explanation for the striking difference between the US and European systems of education finance or health insurance. The underlying mechanism operates as follows. With imperfect credit and insurance markets some redistributive policies can have a positive effect on aggregate output, growth, or more generally ex-ante welfare. Examples considered here include social insurance, progressive taxation combined with investment subsidies, and public education. Aggregate efficiency gains imply very different political economy consequences from those of standard models: the extent of political support for such redistributive policies decreases with the degree of inequality, at least over some range. This can generate a negative correlation between inequality and growth, as found in the data, without the usual feature that transfers increase with inequality, which is not supported empirically. Moreover, capital market imperfections make future earning a function of current resources. Combined with the politics of redistribution this creates the potential for multiple steady-states, with mutually reinforcing high inequality and low redistribution, or vice-versa. Temporary shocks to the distribution of income or the political system can then have permanent effects.

Suggested Citation

  • Roland Benabou, 1996. "Unequal Societies," NBER Working Papers 5583, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:5583
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    Citations

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    Cited by:

    1. Gradstein, Mark, 2002. "Rules, stability, and growth," Journal of Development Economics, Elsevier, vol. 67(2), pages 471-484, April.
    2. Fernandez, Raquel & Gali, Jordi, 1997. "To Each According to ...?: Markets, Tournaments, and The Matching Problem with Borrowing Constraints," Working Papers 97-11, C.V. Starr Center for Applied Economics, New York University.
    3. Sahar Bahmani & Miguel-Ángel Galindo & María Méndez, 2012. "Non-profit organizations, entrepreneurship, social capital and economic growth," Small Business Economics, Springer, vol. 38(3), pages 271-281, April.
    4. Li, Bingqin & Piachaud, David, 2004. "Poverty and inequality and social policy in China," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 6303, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    5. Roland Benabou, 2002. "Tax and Education Policy in a Heterogeneous-Agent Economy: What Levels of Redistribution Maximize Growth and Efficiency?," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 70(2), pages 481-517, March.
    6. Rafael Gomez & David K. Foot, 2003. "Age Structure, Income Distribution and Economic Growth," Canadian Public Policy, University of Toronto Press, vol. 29(s1), pages 141-162, January.
    7. Riccarda Longaretti & Domenico Delli Gatti, 2002. "Monetary Policy and the Distribution of Wealth in a OLG Economy with Heterogeneous Agents, Money and Bequests," Working Papers 60, University of Milano-Bicocca, Department of Economics, revised Oct 2002.
    8. Francisco H. G. Ferreira, 1999. "Economic transition and the distributions of income and wealth," The Economics of Transition, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, vol. 7(2), pages 377-410, July.
    9. Glaeser, Edward & Scheinkman, Jose & Shleifer, Andrei, 2003. "The injustice of inequality," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 50(1), pages 199-222, January.
    10. Bingqin Li & David Piachaud, 2004. "Poverty and Inequality and Social Policy in China," CASE Papers 087, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE.
    11. Bassett, William F. & Burkett, John P. & Putterman, Louis, 1999. "Income distribution, government transfers, and the problem of unequal influence," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 15(2), pages 207-228, June.
    12. Birdsall, Nancy & Nellis, John, 2003. "Winners and Losers: Assessing the Distributional Impact of Privatization," World Development, Elsevier, vol. 31(10), pages 1617-1633, October.
    13. Grüner, Hans Peter, 1999. "Inequality and Political Consensus," Discussion Paper Serie A 591, University of Bonn, Germany.
    14. Murat F. Iyigun & Andrew T. Levin, 1998. "Macroeconomic implications of competitive college admissions," International Finance Discussion Papers 613, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
    15. Anil Duman, 2010. "Risks in the labor market and social insurance preferences: Germany and the USA," International Journal of Social Economics, Emerald Group Publishing, vol. 37(2), pages 150-164, January.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • E62 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Macroeconomic Policy, Macroeconomic Aspects of Public Finance, and General Outlook - - - Fiscal Policy
    • I22 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Education - - - Educational Finance; Financial Aid

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