The Role of Expressive Versus Instrumental Preferences in U.S. Attitudes Toward Taxation and Redistribution

Source: Kirk J. Stark, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) – School of Law, Law-Econ Research Paper No. 15-18, 2015
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From the abstract:
Polling data suggest that Americans are concerned about rising economic inequality, yet the same polls reveal popular opposition to redistributive tax policies that would help mitigate inequality. Numerous commentators have drawn attention to this paradox, attempting to explain why voters would support policies contrary to their pecuniary interests. In this article, Professor Kirk Stark connects the debate over U.S. tax attitudes with research on the role of expressive preferences in electoral choice. An expressive account of political behavior emphasizes the low likelihood that any one voter’s views will influence policy outcomes and thus locates her cost-benefit calculus in the expression itself rather than its effect on policy outcomes. Expressive considerations include the reputational consequences of taking sides in popular debates, especially as those consequences bear on the voter’s effort to portray herself to the people that matter in her life — her family, friends, co-workers, and most of all, herself. The author explains how an expressive account resolves the supposed “paradox” of popular opposition to redistributive tax policies and discusses the implications of this view for U.S. tax politics.