What Does the Data Say?
In a new study, I examine these two competing explanations and ask whether envy and resentment of the successful or compassion for the needy better explain support for socialism, raising taxes on the rich, redistribution, and the like. The analysis is based on the “Cato 2019 Welfare, Work, and Wealth National Survey” of 1,700 Americans.
Statistical tests reveal resentment of the successful has about twice the effect of compassion in predicting support for increasing top marginal tax rates, wealth redistribution, hostility to capitalism, and believing billionaires should not exist. Notably, however, compassion and resentment both equally predict support for socialism.
The survey asked respondents to answer a series of survey questions psychologists have developed to measure a person’s level of compassion and envy or resentment of the successful, respectively. These questions don’t mention politics — or even the rich specifically. For instance:
- To measure a person’s level of compassion, the survey asked respondents if they agree or disagree: “I suffer from others’ sorrows,” or “I feel sympathy for those who are worse off than myself.”
- To measure a person’s resentment toward the successful, the survey asked respondents if they agree or disagree: “Very successful people sometimes need to be brought down a peg or two even if they’ve done nothing wrong,” or “It’s good to see very successful people fail occasionally.”
Americans’ answers to these questions were used to measure the extent to which compassion or envy predict their opinions about taxes, socialism, and capitalism.
Raising Taxes on the Rich
Statistical tests (OLS regression) find that resentment against successful people is more influential than compassion in predicting a person’s support for raising taxes on households earning more than $200,000 a year, raising top marginal tax rates to 70 percent, and redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. (Full statistical results found here.)
This means people who agree that “very successful people sometimes need to be brought down a peg or two even if they’ve done nothing wrong” were more likely to want to raise taxes on the rich than people who agree that “I suffer from others’ sorrows.”
In each of the charts below, the blue line (resentment) is steeper than the red line (compassion), which suggests resentment is a more powerful motivator. Nevertheless, compassion for the needy is also a statistically significant predictor as well.