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Prisoners of the American Dream

With inequality increasing, many around the world might assume that Americans would want to close the income gap by instituting a more progressive system of redistribution. But the opposite is true: Americans’ perceptions of privilege, opportunity, and social mobility contrast markedly with views elsewhere.

CAMBRIDGE – Given worsening economic inequality in the United States, many observers might assume that Americans would want to reduce income differences by instituting a more progressive tax system. That assumption would be wrong because, in December, the US Congress passed a sweeping tax bill that will, at least in the short term, disproportionately benefit higher-income households.

Despite their country’s mounting income gap, Americans’ support for redistribution has, according to the General Social Survey, remained flat for decades. Perhaps John Steinbeck got it right when he supposedly said that, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

For those who believe that a society should offer its members equal opportunity, and that anyone who works hard can climb higher on the socioeconomic ladder, redistribution is unnecessary and unfair. After all, equal opportunists argue, if everyone begins at the same starting point, a bad outcome must be due to an individual’s own missteps.

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