The Directing Power? a Comparative Study of Public Opinion and Income Distribution the Directing Power? a Comparative Study of Public Opinion and Income Distribution the Directing Power? a Comparative Study of Public Opinion and Income Distribution

Abstract

In recent years, a number of studies have examined the influence of public opinion on government policy, but few have considered the influence of opinion on social conditions. These are separate questions, since policies may not have the intended effects, and opinion may influence outcomes directly apart from government policy. This paper examines the relationship between public opinion and income inequality in a sample of about 50 nations. It finds that the distribution of income is more equal in nations where opinions are more egalitarian, and that this relationship is stronger in democracies. However, the association with opinions of people with above-average incomes is stronger than the association with average opinions, suggesting that people with higher incomes have more influence. Analysis of the sources of national differences in opinion suggests that egalitarianism increases with economic development, contrary to the claims of many authors. Ethnic diversity and the experience of Communist rule appear to reduce egalitarian sentiments. The influence, or lack of influence, of public opinion on social conditions is one of the classic questions of sociological and political theory. Many nineteenth century observers assumed that public opinion was becoming a major influence on governments. Tocqueville (1850 [1969], p. 124), wrote that "France and the United States, in spite of their different constitutions, have this point in common, that, in practice, public opinion is the dominant power." Even Marx held that popular pressure was an important cause of reforms such as the reduction of the working day. Other observers, however, argued that popular influence was largely illusory, and that even under democracy decisions were made by small minorities (Michels 1915 [1962]). Although powerful arguments and illustrations could be offered on each side of the question, until recently there was little systematic evidence. In the last decade, several studies have used the accumulated body of survey data to examine the effect of public opinion on government policy. Stimson, Mackuen, and Erikson (1995) construct general indexes of opinion and government policy in the United States since the 1950s, and find that shifts in opinion have been followed by shifts in policy. Although they use general indexes covering a wide range of policies, several studies examine particular policies in more detail. Smith (2000) finds that public opinion affects policies related to business interests, while Burstein (1998) reviews a number of policies and finds that public opinion has influenced nearly all of them. Although there …

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