Book Project

Social-Status and Redistributive Politics

Canonical political economy models have emphasized the centrality of income in shaping preferences for redistribution. Yet,  in many parts of the world, empirical studies have shown a weak or no relationship between income and redistributive outcomes. In this book, I argue that an identity cleavage called social-status mediates the relationship between income and redistributive preferences. In societies with hereditary ranked distinctions between groups — with some individuals ranked as “high-status” and others as “low-status” at birth —  the rise of lower-status group in politics not only portends a redistribution of income, but also a desegregation of public goods and spaces. Facing the specter of desegregation, wealthy upper-status elites are able to persuade poor high-status members into anti-redistribution coalitions.

In the main theoretical chapter I define social-status, describe its salient features, and explain why identities such as class and ethnicity are insufficient for explaining politics in some contexts. I use examples from contemporary and Colonial India, as well as post Civil-War United States to demonstrate when we observe social-status in politics, and how it comes to shape redistributive outcomes such as tax capacity, public good preferences, and vote choice.

In the first empirical chapter, I examine the phenomenon of right-wing voting amongst the poor. I demonstrate that an announcement in the Indian parliament to implement affirmative action to lower castes in 1990 was followed by a rise in right-wing voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Using state electoral constituency-level data from the 1931 census, this paper shows that constituencies where upper castes were more dominant in the 1930s experienced a higher surge in right-wing voting after this announcement than other areas. The chapter provides evidence for the claim that cross-class solidarities emerge in support of anti-redistribution parties in places where the status dominance of groups is threatened.

In a second empirical chapter, I demonstrate how social-status shaped coalitions around taxes by studying how incumbent political elites in colonial Indian provinces hollowed out taxation in anticipation of a franchise expansion. Through 13-months of archival work in London, Chicago, Delhi, Chennai and Madurai, I built a dataset spanning 43 districts between 1914-1925 in the Bombay and Madras provinces. I used Colonial era records to develop novel micro-level measures of land tax collection, tax avoidance, and the size of the tax bureaucracy. I find that tax collections as well as tax capacity declined after franchise expansion in the districts with higher levels of inter-caste status inequality. Importantly, status-inequality between castes rather than land inequality or ethnic fragmentation explained the decline in tax institutions.

In a third empirical chapter, I test the external validity of my argument beyond the Indian case. I examine the historical legacies of slavery and Reconstruction on taxation at the county-level in the American South (using data collected for a co-authored paper with Steven White). In order to measure taxation and tax capacity, we use census data from 1860-1880 to develop county-level measures of tax collection and age-heaping. I find that the end of the Civil War was associated with an increase in taxation under an occupying North in counties where there were greater numbers of emancipated former slaves. However, after Reconstruction ended, the same counties were more likely to see a weakening of taxes as white “Redeemers” attempted to roll back institutional changes. Moreover, higher intrawhite economic inequality was associated with lower taxes and lower bureaucratic quality in the post-Reconstruction era in counties with more enslaved people and slaveholdings. These results suggest that Southern elites could successfully build cross-class coalitions against taxation in places where whites were more threatened by desegregation and sought to protect their racial status.