The Market Will Find a Level: Perceptions of Economic Inequality at the Top End of the Income and Wealth Distributions in the UK

Tuesday, 17 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
Katharina HECHT, LSE, United Kingdom
Following in the tradition of research on ‘elite’ perceptions of inequality (Reis and Moore, 2005), my research investigates how economic inequality, measured by top income and wealth shares, is perceived by the top 1 percent of income earners in the UK. In the UK, a liberal market economy in which 'firms coordinate their activities primarily via hierarchies and competitive market arrangements' (Hall and Soskice, 2001 p.8), the distribution of income and wealth has become more unequal since the 1970s. Specifically, top income shares, the share of the top 1 percent in total national income have increased. Top wealth shares, the share of the top 1 percent in total wealth have also increased though less dramatically.

How are these recent increases in economic inequality understood and experienced by those with top incomes and wealth? I will answer this question by presenting findings from a mixed-methods doctoral study with 30 UK-based participants, whose income places them within the top 1 percent of the distribution. Even though research by economists has demonstrated that the richest 1 percent are increasing their advantage over others, there is little empirical research regarding how they perceive increasing economic inequality (Chin, 2014). Findings include that a majority of participants explain that they cannot answer the question how high top income (and wealth) shares ought to be; either because they prefer not to provide a judgement or because 'the market' should determine levels of inequality. I will unpack the idea of competitive markets and the process of economic evaluation, to explain why many participants state that we should not concern ourselves with issues of distribution, but focus on maximizing 'wealth for all' through wealth and job creation.