The political economy of redistribution under democracy

Jess Benhabib, Adam Przeworski

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    We ask what redistributions of income and assets are feasible in a democracy, given the initial assets and their distribution. The question is motivated by the possibility that if redistribution is insufficient for the poor or excessive for the rich, they may turn against democracy. In turn, if no redistribution simultaneously satisfies the poor and the wealthy, democracy cannot be sustained. Hence, the corollary question concerns the conditions under which democracy is sustainable. We find that democracies survive in wealthy societies. Conditional on the initial income distribution and the capacity of the poor and the wealthy to overthrow democracy, each country has a threshold of capital stock above which democracy survives. This threshold is lower when the distribution of initial endowments is more equal and when the revolutionary prowess of these groups is lower. Yet in poor unequal countries there exist no redistribution scheme which would be accepted both by the poor and the wealthy. Hence, democracy cannot survive. As endowments increase, redistribution schemes that satisfy both the poor and the wealthy emerge. Moreover, as capital stock grows the wealthy tolerate more and the poor less redistribution, so that the set of feasible redistributions becomes larger. Since the median voter prefers one such scheme to the dictatorship of either group, democracy survives.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)271-290
    Number of pages20
    JournalEconomic Theory
    Issue number2
    StatePublished - Oct 2006


    • Democracy
    • Dictatorship
    • Redistribution

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Economics and Econometrics


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