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Money Matters

A new analysis of British lottery winners finds that having more money makes people more right-wing and less egalitarian.

Lottery winners tend to switch towards support for a right-wing political party and to become less egalitarian, according to new research on UK data by Andrew J. Oswald, professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick and a fellow in its Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and Nattavudh Powdthavee, professor at the London School of Economic and the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne.

The study, which the authors say is the first of its kind, shows that the larger the win, the more people tilt to the right. The trend is more pronounced among men than among women, they found. In addition, lottery winners are more sympathetic to the belief that ordinary people “already get a fair share of society’s wealth,” their evidence shows.

Why are you right-wing, left-wing, or in the political middle? You probably believe that you made a genuine, calm, and ethical choice.

The effects are sizeable. A win of just a few thousand pounds makes people 5 percentage points more likely to vote ‘right’. Alternatively, we can measure the size of the effect by contrasting it with the effect from education. Winning a modest amount in the lottery has an effect on the right-wing tilt of a person’s political views that is approximately half as big as that from having a good standard of education (i.e. A-levels) compared to having no qualifications.

The researchers used the nationally representative British Household Panel Survey, which has been recording longitudinal views about politics since it began in the early 1990s. Thus, the authors were able to analyze information on thousands of people in the UK and the attitudes of people before and winning lottery jackpots of up to £200,000.

The authors believe their paper has wide implications for how democracy works by providing documented evidence for the role of money in shaping attitudes to politics and what counts as a fair division of wealth in society. The finding is particularly resonant in light of trends showing growing inequality gap between the wealthiest and poorest residents of many developed nations, including the UK, and in the developing world.

Professor Oswald said the research had made him doubt the view that morality is an objective choice. “Why are you right-wing, left-wing, or in the political middle? You probably believe that you made a genuine, calm, and ethical choice,” he said. “But what were the deep, causal forces upon those political preferences?

The consequences of winning even a modest sum of money are fairly large – certainly a number of percentage points extra on your chances of favouring a Mrs. Thatcher or a Ronald Reagan.

“In the voting booth, monetary self-interest casts a long shadow, despite people’s protestations that there are intellectual reasons for voting for low tax rates.”

The study drew upon a nationally representative sample taken from the British Household Panel Survey, which has recorded political attitudes annually since it began in the early 1990s. The researchers looked at the political allegiances of lottery winners, comparing the views expressed before the win with those expressed after. They also compared the changes in political allegiances of bigger and smaller winners.

“The consequences of winning even a modest sum of money are fairly large – certainly a number of percentage points extra on your chances of favouring a Mrs. Thatcher or a Ronald Reagan,” Professor Oswald said.

The correlation between high incomes and right-wing views has been documented repeatedly, but the underlying causes of people’s political attitudes are largely unknown, the authors note.

One possibility is that individuals’ attitudes to politics and redistribution of wealth are motivated by deeply held ethical views. Another possibility – perhaps the archetypal economist’s presumption and the one suggested by their findings - is that voting choices are made out of self-interest and then come to be embroidered in the mind with a form of moral rhetoric.

“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains”, Professor Powdthavee said, “but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”

The full study, “Does Money Make People Right-Wing and Inegalitarian: A Longitudinal Study of Lottery Wins,” is part of The Warwick Economics Working Paper series.

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