Elites care about inequality, but probably not in the way that you think

by Matias Lopez, Universidad Católica, Chile

A survey of over 800 elites in six Latin American countries reveals that they acknowledge economic inequality as a problem, but see little incentive to reduce inequality. The elite from stronger and more stable democracies tend to be more aware of inequality as a political problem. Yet they do not view equitable income re-distribution as the answer.

That a tiny elite accumulates excessive wealth and power prompts concern about the future of democracy. We know from several studies that this inequality may generate conflict and support for non-democratic leadership — a perilous situation recognized by citizens of the United States and Europe. But what do elites themselves think about the risks of inequality? Do they feel comfortable living with these risks, or do they feel worried about them? And if they feel worried, what are they willing to do about it?

To answer these questions, Latin America provides a very useful set of cases. Many large and durable democracies in the region, such as Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, have high levels of economic inequality even though this inequality creates urban violence and social unrest. Extreme inequality in a democracy is a problem for average citizens because it puts in doubt Lincoln’s principle of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Meanwhile, elites also have good reasons to fear inequality as they are clearly impacted by the political turmoil and the social violence that can follow.

I looked at the University of São Paulo survey conducted in six Latin American countries of over 800 members of the elite in the realms of politics, business, and civil society. I found out that most of the elite share the usual concerns about inequality and democratic stability.

But the relationship between concern and action has not to do with inequality itself, but with the strength and stability of democracy.

Stronger and more stable democracies tend to have more members of the elite concerned about inequality. This seems intuitive, since stronger democracies may have more to lose from the sort of social menaces that accompany extreme inequality. But if concern over the perils of high inequality would, rationally speaking, lead the elite to act to reduce inequality, then my second finding is counter-intuitive: By and large, the Latin American elite have little desire to lower the level of economic inequality.

Inequality, over the past decade, has decreased significantly in Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Chile. I found that countries whose inequality dropped also have elite who show the highest levels of concern. Brazil is a very interesting case in this regard. The country’s inequality has recently fallen but remains among the highest in the world. As in other Latin American countries, Brazilian elites share concern over the problem of inequality, but do not feel that they should be part of the solution. For example, they are strongly averse to paying more taxes, as shown in the figure below.

Figure 1. Brazilian Elite Agreement with Further Social Investment and with Further Taxation

matias-lopez-elite-figure-1

Source: USP 2008

 

Except for union leaders, all elite sectors in Brazil scored much higher for welfare spending than for taxation. Union leaders may believe that they will not be the ones paying extra taxes, as they often picture themselves as part of the working class, not the elite. Business elites seem to be aware that they would be preferential targets of taxation. On average, the elite do like the idea of increasing social welfare, as long as they are not asked to contribute more to it.

In sum, the elite often worry a lot about inequality. But they also feel that they get away with doing nothing substantive about it, and feel no need to sacrifice their own resources to end it.

This article is based on the chapter, “Elite Perception of Inequality as a Threat to Democracy in Six Latin American Countries,” in the book, Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives.

Matias Lopez is a PhD candidate in political science at the Universidad Católica, Chile. His research is on democratic stability in contexts of high inequality. He can be reached at matiaslopez.uy[at]gmail.com