Democracy Without Redistribution:

The Sense of Injustice, Perceived Inequality, and Demands for Redistribution

Why do many countries experience decreased demand for redistribution when inequality rises? Why do high levels of income inequality not lead to greater demands for redistribution in many democracies? While workhorse models of political economy predict that increasing inequality leads the median voter to support more redistribution to maximize their material interests in democracies, the empirical evidence has suggested the opposite.

To address this puzzle, this book project challenges the underlying assumption of extant theories that perceived inequality and actual income inequality are closely correlated and develops a theory based on perceived inequality. One of the contributions is that I conceptualize perceived inequality differently from existing studies, which see the perception of inequality as an issue of accuracy in estimating the extent of inequality. I focus on attitudinality as the defining attribute of perceived inequality. Perceiving inequality is a sociopolitical process in which individuals form their attitudes toward the level of inequality. I argue that this is what matters for political preferences and behavior, not how correctly or incorrectly people estimate the income differences.

The central argument is that demands for redistribution increase with perceived inequality. When perceived inequality and actual income inequality decouple, income inequality does not have any meaningful effect on political variables. Income inequality becomes politically salient only when people perceive it as high. A desire for fairness, not material self-interests, drives the causal mechanism. In addition, I argue that a sense of injustice makes income inequality more perceptible. People are more likely to perceive that income differences are large when they believe that income is distributed unjustly, the rich accumulate their wealth through unjust means, corruption is widespread, or the powerful and the rich mistreat the weak and the poor. I find that any form of injustice, which is not necessarily related to distributive injustice, makes income inequality more perceptible. People perceive inequality most acutely when they believe that different rules apply to different people.

This project draws on a multitude of original empirical evidence gathered during more than a year of fieldwork in two East Asian democracies – Japan and Korea. The first empirical chapter examines the triggers of perceived inequality using two original survey experiments, which manipulate the visibility of inequality and the sense of injustice. I also analyze income inequality-related articles from major media outlets in Japan and Korea to study the effect of media on inequality perceptions. The second empirical chapter shows how different dimensions of demands for redistribution increase with perceived inequality. I use the original survey and survey experiments that were conducted with representative samples of adult populations in Japan and Korea. In addition, I use extensive interview data to trace the causal mechanism and to capture the contextual story which is missing from observational and experimental analyses.