Declining Social Cohesion: Education or Income Inequality?

A conventional wisdom that rolls easily off the tongue is how high and rising income inequality underlies the sociopolitical tensions that we see around us everywhere in the world. However, this easy belief is contradicted by facts – at least as collected by Gethin, Martinez-Toledano, and Piketty (2021) for Western democracies and on traditional left-right issues.

(Fig from Gethin, Martinez-Toledano, and Piketty, 2021
  1. In the 1960s, for Western democracies, elites mostly voted right-wing. Highly-educated, high-income voters were less likely to vote for left-wing parties, those last being the preserve of those lower-educated and with lower incomes.
  2. But these last 60 years has surfaced a striking and growing separation between education and income: in a pronounced swing from six decades past, the highly-educated now vote left-wing. High-income voters, however, continue to vote right-wing, and they do so in the same proportion as before. In other words, the political divide between left and right has changed hardly at all from the sharp rise in income inequality observed in these nations. Instead, it is in the education dimension where change has been most pronounced.
  3. According to GMP (pp.18-19), highly-educated voters flock to the liberal agenda (green, openness, and so on), while a growing share of less-educated voters collect around conservative views (anti-immigration and other traditional right-wing platforms).
  4. Nations that have seen the greatest separation in education and income-driven preferences are also those where identity politics have emerged most powerfully.
  5. It is, therefore, not increasing income inequality driving the rise in political temperature within Western democracies. Rather, it is the separation in beliefs related to levels of education attained.
  6. Reducing income inequality might indeed be a good way to address many of society’s contemporary challenges. But its ability to repair social cohesion – if by that we mean the extent of left-right disagreement – might not be as effective as earlier supposed.

(Notes of stand-alone general interest, excerpted from my in-progress working paper, Inequality is No Sufficient Statistic.)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: