New Insights into Welfare State Attitudes: “Winners” versus “Losers” in Perceived Meritocracies

by Tim Huijts (HiNEWS)

HiNEWS Tim Huijts
Tim Huijts

Western societies are often portrayed as meritocracies: people’s status and success in life is determined by a combination of talent and effort, and those who are most gifted and work hardest will be most successful. This also implies that social inequalities in status and success are mostly simply a result of differences in talent and effort between social groups. As such, you might expect that people (both from disadvantaged and privileged social groups) are more likely to tolerate social inequalities in countries that are perceived to be more meritocratic: after all, given that inequalities are based on talent and effort they are likely to be seen as ‘fair’.

However, our research based on survey data from 39 countries shows that this is not the case. We find that attitudes towards income inequality are more polarized between social groups in societies that are perceived more strongly as meritocracies. This suggests that while people from higher status groups see patterns of inequality as a ‘fair’ consequence of the meritocratic organization of society, people from lower status groups reject this idea. We explain this finding by pointing at self-esteem and identity: if success is determined by talent and effort this automatically implies that people have only their own lack of talent or ‘laziness’ to blame if they fail to reach higher social positions. All in all it is interesting to see that in societies where inequalities are legitimized by myths that focus on ‘fairness’, people from lower social groups are actually even more likely to feel that income inequality is unfair.

To read the complete article by Karlijn LA Roex, Tim Huijts and Inge Sieben, go to doi.org/10.1177/0001699317748340.