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Does Religion Distract the Poor?

- July 30, 2008

Why don’t governments redistribute more wealth to the less fortunate who, by most definitions of “fortunate,” out-number the wealthy? A standard explanation is Marx’s: the poor are distracted from their economic self-interest — e.g., a vote for left-wing parties who tend to favor redistribution — by things such as religion (the “opium of the people,” etc.). Is this true?

According to a recent article by Anna de la O and Jonathan Rodden, the short answer is a qualified “yes”:

bq. …the impressive relationship between church attendance and voting against the parties of the left is driven disproportionately by the poor.

That’s the “yes.” The qualification is this:

bq. However, we also discover that these relationships are primarily driven by the large presence in our sample of countries in continental Europe that use proportional representation.

In other words, the “opium effect” (my words, not theirs) emerges most strongly in countries with proportional representation. Why? De la O and Rodden write:

bq. Conflicted voters in majoritarian countries with two-party systems must often choose between their moral and economic preferences when voting, whereas proportional representation reduces the barriers to entry for hybrid political parties that take leftist positions on one issue dimension and rightist positions on the other.

Another interesting tidbit:

bq. Although preferences on the moral values dimension do push the religious—especially the religious poor—strongly to the right, they also create a strong push to the left among the secular rich—in fact, a stronger push than that of the secular poor.

And another one:

bq. In spite of all the talk about a culture war, this study shows that economic preferences are far better predictors of vote choice in the United States than moral values preferences. Yet the opposite seems to be true in several relatively religious European countries with multiparty systems.

The article is here. Recommended.

[For an analysis of the American case, see Larry Bartels’ critique of Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? and Andy et al’s new book. See also Andy’s post on a related project by John Huber and Piero Stanig.]