It seems that it’s very important to people that there are others who have it worse:
Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals [in the US] whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available. Other surveys have shown similar results.
What might explain this trend? First, the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities, and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.
“[L]ast place aversion” … can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them. (source)
Lab experiments have shown that people
choose gambles with the potential to move them out of last place that they reject when randomly placed in other parts of the distribution. In money-transfer games, those randomly placed in second-to-last place are the least likely to costlessly give money to the player one rank below. …
Using survey data, we show that individuals making just above the minimum wage are the most likely to oppose its increase. (source)
I think it’s not far-fetched to assume that this isn’t limited to issues of redistribution and that something like it can lead to the persistence of certain types of rights violations. Perhaps some men in societies with endemic gender inequality actually like the fact that women are below them. And perhaps some groups in some societies need people like the Roma, “illegals”, immigrants or blacks to live in poverty and suffer from discrimination in order to feel better about themselves.
Moreover, individuals in positions of power can use last place aversion to create divisions and antagonism among groups belonging to the lower strata of the population and avoid the formation of a common front against the rulers. Last place aversion therefore leads to first place preservation.
More posts in this series are here.