I’m Very Skeptical About That Yale Law School Study

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If you want to understand people’s policy views, here’s three ways you could get this information:

  1. You could conduct an experiment in a controlled setting that is somewhat related to the policy issue at hand.
  2. You could ask people their policy views.
  3. You could look at their voting records.

Ray Fishman, Daniel Markovitz, Pamela Jakiela and Shachar Kariv chose the first route, conducting a study that ran a redistribution experiment on average Americans (from a Rand data set), somewhat elite Americans (Berkeley students), and very elite Americans (Yale Law Students).

They then extrapolated their findings, which showed Yale Law students preference efficiency over redistribution in the experiment, and wrote in article in Slate with the byline:

Rich elites—even rich liberal elites—don’t believe in redistributing wealth.

I’ll assume they didn’t write that over exaggerated headline, but they did write this:

Yale Law students’ overwhelming, indeed almost eccentric, commitment to efficiency over equality is all the more astonishing given that the students self-identified as Democrats rather than Republicans …. Our results thus shine a revealing light on American politics and policy. They suggest that the policy response to rising economic inequality lags so far behind the preferences of ordinary Americans for the simple reason that the elites who make policy—regardless of political party—just don’t care much about equality. [emphasis mine]

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I attended Yale Law School from 2003 to 2007 (I took a semester off to work in Sierra Leone so I graduated in January of 2007).

At least back then, Yale Law School was a very, very, very liberal place. I’m a Democrat, and I remember feeling, at times, feeling very conservative in some of my views.

So I was surprised to see these results (note: I read the Slate article and the article abstract, but didn’t have access to the full study).

The students I knew at Yale Law School, myself included, were generally very in favor of redistributing income.

My experiences aside, what makes me skeptical of the author’s claims is that the Democratic Party is currently pursuing very redistribute policies: health insurance paid for by taxing the rich, a $15 minimum wage, universal pre-k paid for by taxing the rich, etc.

This seems like an odd thing to do if you don’t care about redistribution.

If elite liberals were able to enact their policy preferences, we would likely see a significant shift towards equity and away from efficiency.

Now, who is voting for these Democratic elites, it’s Yale Law students! And who is not voting for these Democratic elites, average Americans living in red states!

To say, because of the results of artificial experiment, that the average American favors redistribution more than Yale Law students seems somewhat odd given that Yale Law students (I’m fairly confident) are much more likely to vote people who support significant redistribution efforts.

When it comes to policy preference, voting patterns are much better evidence than artificial experiments.

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One other point: there seems to be a big difference between valuing efficiency when the person you’re sharing with is anonymous and valuing efficiency when the person you’re sharing with is in major need of medical, educational, or other necessary services.

It was unclear to me that the study replicated the wealth differences we consider in real life tax transfers.

In a world of generally equal wealth, efficiency (increasing the size of the pie) is much more important than equality (redistributing wealth). Of course, one could argue that this is always the case, but it seems especially true when equality is already at reasonable levels.

My guess is that the study results would have been different if there had been a narrative revealing that the person the YLS student was sharing money with was in great need.

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Even if the authors draw weak conclusions from their data, the data does raise an interesting question: why is there an inverse correlation between private (charity / sharing) and public (voting / policy preference) redistributive actions?

I don’t know the answer, but, in practice, it seem unimportant.

If you want to understand who wants to redistribute the most resources, find the people who are willing to support the greatest amount of resource redistribution.

Given that charity and sharing, right now at least, are dwarfed in total amount by tax redistribution, it’s tax policy that really matters.

What people do in experiments (or in their private lives) is interesting, but in many ways it’s irrelevant.

Who they vote for is not.

3 thoughts on “I’m Very Skeptical About That Yale Law School Study

  1. Cozzi, John

    I don’t completely agree with your last point and Wall Street (and Hollywood) are filled with the same limousine liberals that vote D but act differently. It is very easy to cast a vote which may impact you marginally, but you mostly believe will impact others. Those people often are the first to exploit every legal benefit to reduce their personal burden, so in the end there is no pain. Is there a movie made by Hollywood that doesn’t exploit this? Certainly Wall Street knows it’s way around tax burdens.

    My experience is that if you want to really see what people believe look at how they dig into their own pockets. I’ve found few people who argue for more taxes and redistribution actually practice it. The simplest proxy is charitable contributions. Let’s put aside those who work in social works, especially at sub-market prices. Our President got to 4-6% in his last year before office and he’s no different than most people.

    So the results do not surprise me after 30+ years. I also do not think most Americans want wholesale income redistribution. They want real, tangible equal opportunity. The problem we have – which you accurately captured a while ago when you sent around an article on the Bash brothers: technology and labor outsourcing. That is a huge impediment to anyone without a strong craft or serious education.

    One man’s opinion. We need to stop thinking in political terms and more about people’s actions. Most ideology is talk and little consistent action.

    John F. Cozzi AEA Investors LP 666 Fifth Avenue, 36th Floor New York, New York 10103 (T) 212-702-0504 (M) 908-347-1427 jcozzi@aeainvestors.com

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  2. hlempel

    If I’m interpreting the study right, another issue is they they are taking YLS students’ willingness to transfer money to other random YLS students as a reflection of their support of redistribution generally. I’m not sure I can think of a political theory that recommends redistribution from elites to other randomly selected elites.

    If this is the case it also means that the results from the three experiments aren’t directly comparable because the subjects are being asked to redistribute to different groups.

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