Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans

By Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels and Jason Seawright
American Political Science Association, Perspective on Politics, March 2013

Abstract

It is important to know what wealthy Americans seek from politics and how (if at all) their policy preferences differ from those of other citizens. There can be little doubt that the wealthy exert more political influence than the less affluent do. If they tend to get their way in some areas of public policy, and if they have policy preferences that differ significantly from those of most Americans, the results could be troubling for democratic policy making. Recent evidence indicates that “affluent” Americans in the top fifth of the income distribution are socially more liberal but economically more conservative than others. But until now there has been little systematic evidence about the truly wealthy, such as the top 1 percent. We report the results of a pilot study of the political views and activities of the top 1 percent or so of US wealth-holders. We find that they are extremely active politically and that they are much more conservative than the American public as a whole with respect to important policies concerning taxation, economic regulation, and especially social welfare programs. Variation within this wealthy group suggests that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of wealth-holders (people with $40 million or more in net worth) may tend to hold still more conservative views that are even more distinct from those of the general public. We suggest that these distinctive policy preferences may help account for why certain public policies in the United States appear to deviate from what the majority of US citizens wants the government to do. If this is so, it raises serious issues for democratic theory.

Health Care

The public has expressed much more support for tax-financed national health insurance (61 percent in favor) than our wealthy respondents did (just 32 percent). This represents a major gap on a central issue of social welfare policy. Similarly, a solid majority of the public (59 percent), but only a minority of the wealthy (41 percent), said they would be “willing to pay more taxes in order to provide health coverage for everyone.”

Conclusion

Our evidence indicates that the wealthy are much more concerned than other Americans about budget deficits. The wealthy are much more favorable toward cutting social welfare programs, especially Social Security and health care. They are considerably less supportive of several jobs and income programs, including an above-poverty-level minimum wage, a “decent” standard of living for the unemployed, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and having the federal government “see to” —or actually provide—jobs for those who cannot find them in the private sector.

Judging by our evidence, wealthy Americans are much less willing than others to provide broad educational opportunities, by “spend[ing] whatever is necessary to ensure that all children have really good public schools they can go to” or “mak[ing] sure that everyone who wants to go to college can do so.” They are less willing to pay more taxes in order to provide health coverage for everyone, and they are much less supportive of tax-financed national health insurance. The wealthy tend to favor lower estate tax rates and to be less eager to increase income taxes on high-income people. They express concern about economic inequality and favor somewhat more egalitarian wages than they perceive as presently existing, but—to a much greater extent than the general public—the wealthy oppose government action to redistribute income or wealth.

On many important issues the preferences of the wealthy appear to differ markedly from those of the general public. Thus, if policy makers do weigh citizens’ policy preferences differentially based on their income or wealth, the result will not only significantly violate democratic ideals of political equality, but will also affect the substantive contours of American public policy.

http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid…

The wealthy have a very strong political voice. They use it to advance their own interests while opposing social programs, including tax-financed national health insurance. This is class warfare, but look at who is waging it.