A 2011 study yields surprising results.
The word “socialist” was, for all intents and purposes, dead and buried after the fall of the Iron Curtain. But it has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity since, oh, 2008 or so. The thing is, since we hadn’t had any real socialistm for awhile, our understanding of what the term means has gotten a little fuzzy.
So the question is, how socialist are you really? Maybe none at all, maybe a whole lot, and maybe somewhere in the middle. Let’s find out.
Below is a series of three pie charts, each depicting the relative income distribution of a hypothetical nation. It’s color coded so as to reflect what percentage of the nation’s total wealth is owned by each quintile of the population (that’s a statistical term that means “fifth” – so the top quintile, shown in green, is the top 20%, or the richest fifth of the population. The bottom quintile, in dark blue, is the poorest 20%). Make sense? Good.
I’m going to ask you to decide which nation you’d rather live in. Here’s the catch. You’re going to be dropped randomly into the distribution and you have no control over where you land. You have a 20% chance of winding up in the top quintile and an equal chance of being in the bottom quintile. Obviously landing in the bottom quintile means different things in each of the three nations.
So, here are your three hypothetical nations. Which one would you rather be plunked down into?
Now, there’s not a right answer. This is about understanding ourselves, not judging or telling people they’re wrong. And I’m not keeping score. We’re on the honor system and I trust you to be honest with yourself. You don’t have to report your decision to me or anyone else.
This is a fun little exercise. It was concocted by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely of Harvard and Duke, respectively. They administered it to more than 5,500 Americans and published their results in 2011. What they found was perhaps surprising.
For starters, only one of the three nations above is actually hypothetical – that would be #2, where the money is distributed evenly. Nation #3, where the top 20% of the population holds 84% of the wealth, is the United States. Nation #1, where the green 20% holds 36% of the money, that’s Sweden.
#1 is an idealized socialist paradise where everyone is equal. Sweden is considered by many to be one of the world’s most prominent socialist societies. As you can see, it’s hardly a perfect example of socialism, but you do have a far more equal distribution of wealth than you have in places like the US.
So, what did Norton and Ariely find? 47% of participants selected Sweden and another 43% chose the hypothetical perfect distribution. Only 10% preferred the US. Head to head 92% preferred Sweden to the US.
How did you answer?
This study is meaningful, of course, because it indicates that a lot of people who say they detest socialism (whatever they think the word means) actually don’t. When faced with the question of what kind of system they’d rather live in (assuming they don’t get to pick their status), a staggering majority of our fellow countrymen – over 90% – choose the socialist option.
No, you’re not automatically a “socialist” if you picked #1 or #2. As much as we love to rely on cheap labels, the truth is that being socialist or capitalist or whatever is a lot more complex question. We don’t live life by picking abstract forced choices like these and as I have noted in comment threads elsewhere, social research methodologies are often problematic.
That said, while your answer on this quiz doesn’t tell us everything, it damned sure tells us something. Whether it’s a deep-seated response to income inequality that you don’t think about very often or maybe a certain calculating approach to risk management, if you, like a vast majority of those in the study, picked either of the first two answers, it means that something about systems that distribute wealth in a more egalitarian fashion makes sense to you, at some level.
I believe the study’s results also hint at something very useful in our national character. It’s one thing to identify with the haves against the faceless, stereotypical have-not horde when we believe we have some control over our destiny. But when faced with a blind draw, we make a very different decision. Fine. But what it also suggests is a path through the sound and fury and hateful rhetoric to a point of human empathy. If we don’t want to take our chances on that dark blue section of the American pie chart – and who in their right mind would? – doesn’t this translate into a way of thinking about the actual have-nots in our midst?
I have to think on this question some more. I hope you will, too.