Friday, April 9, 2021

Other dimensions of political conflict are not independent of income and wealth

The new book by Piketty and co-authors on the evolution of political cleavages in 50 democracies has been published in the French edition (the English edition is forthcoming in November) and it has a great associated web page with all the data. I will recommend it to my students in the UAB undergraduate course about Public Sector Economics, in the chapter we'll be starting next week on Public Choice and Political Economy, where we'll try to answer one of the questions of the book: "Why the poor do not expropriate the rich in democracies."

The project started with a paper that was part of the last solo Piketty book ("Capital and Ideology"), where, looking at the recent experience of the US, the UK and France, the French economist observed that a multi-élite political system was emerging in these countries, dominated by a "Brahmin Left" supported by an education élite, and a "Merchant Right" supported by the economic élite. Differences of vote by income were also being reduced, and in the 2016 presidential election in the US the economic elites even voted more for the Democratic Party. As a result, politics was becoming less redistributive in these countries.

But Piketty did not stop there, and he gathered data with a large team of collaborators on 47 more democracies from all the continents. The result is a much more nuanced picture, where it is true that, especially in developed countries, systems are evolving in a multi-élite direction, but in very different ways. The support of the educational élites and young educated voters goes more for green or new left parties rather than for the traditional left (social democrats and similar), who keep receiving the support of the shrinking traditional working class. And the support of some of the economically disadvantaged for the right does not go to traditionally right-wing parties but to some new national-populist parties (although not everywhere). Some countries retain a class-based political system based on income differences, like Portugal. The synthesis chapter offers a great overview and summary of how class-based cleavages are correlated with other dimensions of political conflict. In some countries, other dimensions reinforce class conflicts, and in other countries, these other dimensions (religion, ethnicity, gender, generation, etc.) lower the intensity of class conflicts (and are sometimes strategically used with this objective).

In the concluding chapter, the authors cautiously express their preference for a class-based political conflict, because they argue that this conflict can be led to a solution using democracy and deliberation, whereas conflicts based on other dimensions (especially ethnicity) tend to be confrontational with no end. I do not know if class based conflicts can be solved or not, but I believe that what is consistent with progressive value judgments is to focus on differences of income, wealth and class, and the other dimensions should be respected, and look first at how they correlate with income and wealth. Because they are almost never orthogonal.

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