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Danish Center for Welfare Studies

Merit, Luck, and Taxes: Societal Reward Rules, Self-Interest, and Ideology in a Real-Effort Voting Experiment

Authors: Markus Tepe, Pieter Vanhuysse, Maximilian Lutz
Published: Political Research Quarterly, 2021, 74(4).

When are high earnings considered a legitimate target for redistribution, and when not? We design a real-effort laboratory experiment in which we manipulate the assignment of payrates (societal “reward rules”) that translate performance on a real-effort counting task into pre-tax earnings. We then ask subjects to vote on a flat tax rate in groups of three. We distinguish three treatment conditions: the same payrate for all group members (“equal” reward rule), differential (low, medium, and high) but random payrates (“luck” rule), and differential payrates based on subjects’ performance on a quiz with voluntary preparation opportunity (“merit” rule). Self-interest is the dominant tax voting motivation. Tax levels are lower under “merit” rule than under “luck” rule, and merit reasoning overrides political ideology. But information is needed to activate merit reasoning. Both these latter effects are present only when voters have “full merit knowledge” that signals precisely how others obtained their incomes.

Find the paper here (open access)