American University of Beirut

Do the Rich Deserve to be Rich?


​​June 8, 2022​

It’s Monday morning. You’re on your way to the office, smartly dressed, energetic. You’ve just earned a promotion and a raise. The sun lights up the sidewalk in front of you. Upon reaching the crosswalk, you notice to your left, a man covered in rags, slumped against the base of a towering financial center. From beneath the rags, you spot a pair of unshod, calloused feet, a bloated stomach, a pair of jaundiced eyes and a hand motioning toward a tattered coffee cup full of loose change. Perhaps you feel a pang of guilt at your own relative comfort. Perhaps you feel annoyed at having to confront destitution. Perhaps you feel nothing. 

The drivers of our emotional response in this case are myriad and cross-cutting, but they may be influenced, at least to some degree, by the extent to which neoliberal ideology pervades the society in which we live, according to a recent research paper co-authored by AUB’s Vivienne Badaan, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.1 Neoliberalism contends that the market should be trusted to ensure that everyone gets what they “deserve” and that government regulation and the welfare state should be minimized.

The paper, titled Neoliberalism and the Ideological Construction of Equity Beliefs, finds that the more neoliberal a country’s institutional culture, the more likely are its citizens to believe in the ultimate justice and morality of the free market and in the idea of meritocracy writ large; that is to say, by extension, that rich and the poor are each deserving of their respective conditions. If you live in neoliberal America, you’re more likely to swoon than swear when Jeff Bezos appears in front of Congress for an antitrust hearing and launches into a speech about how he pulled himself up from his bootstraps.

The authors— Shahrzad Goudarzi and Eric D. Knowles of New York University, and Vivienne Badaan of AUB—draw on two decades of data from the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom Index, a rubric that reads like a checklist for an ultra-capitalist utopia à la Milton Freidman’s Capitalism and Freedom, to determine a country’s degree of neoliberalism. They then put that data, along with data from World Values Survey, into a regression model, finding a strong correlation between neoliberal saturation and belief in “equity-based prescriptive distributive justice,” or the idea that resources should be distributed according to one’s economic output rather than one’s need. 

“The rise of neoliberalism has shaped equity beliefs and meritocracy beliefs, and de-emphasized equality of outcomes as a distributive rule that people employ. Lebanon is no exception. In fact, our dataset covered Lebanon as well,” says Badaan. 

Moreover, the paper traces the history of research into the concept of distributive justice. The authors note that meritocratic resource distribution has been unjustly taken as the standard for all of humanity, despite the fact that other ways of distributing resources— such as according to need or based on strict equality—have held sway in many human societies historically. There is also a fascinating section on neoliberalism’s rise as the dominant economic model, especially in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The world’s two most prominent intergovernmental financial institutions, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, consistently prescribe the enactment of neoliberal policy as a solution to economic ailments. Even now, in Lebanon, the IMF restructuring plan calls for the lifting of subsidies. 

As for a value judgement on neoliberalism itself, the authors point out that, according to the literature, equity-based, meritocratic thinking is best if “the primary goal is economic productivity rather than welfare or interpersonal harmony and solidarity.” Ultimately though, they conclude that further study is needed to get a better sense of the degree to which society-level or personal-level influences shape our perceptions of fairness and morality.

1 Shahrzad Goudari is a sixth-year doctoral student at New York University's Department of Psychology; Vivienne Badaan is an assistant professor at AUB's Department of Psychology; and Eric D. Knowles is an associate professor at NYU's Department of Psychology.

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