A large-scale multinational study shows that differences in universalism are a stronger predictor of variations in support for various policy views than traditional political economy variables such as income or equity-efficiency preferences.
Moral universalism is defined as the extent to which people exhibit the same level of altruism and trust towards strangers as towards in-group members. Universalism focuses on how a person’s altruism or trust changes based on the distance between them and the group they are interacting with, rather than one individual’s overall level of altruism or trust. Therefore, a universalist places less emphasis on group- or place-based identities than communitarians do.
The study by Benjamin Enke, Ricardo Rodríguez-Padilla, and briq Research Director Florian Zimmermann, published in the Review of Economic Studies, provides descriptive evidence that moral universalism predicts the prevailing ideological clusters across many rich Western countries. The analysis is based on internet surveys with a total of about 11,000 respondents from nationally representative samples in the United States, Australia, Germany, France, and Sweden.
The researchers developed a new method for measuring universalism. Participants are given a hypothetical $100 and are asked to divide it between two equally rich individuals: (i) a randomly selected member of a specific social (in-)group who lives in their own country of residence and (ii) a randomly selected person who lives in their own country of residence. Each participant is required to make multiple choices with varying types of (in-)group members. For example, in one question, a U.S. participant is asked to split a hypothetical $100 between a member of their extended family and a randomly selected person from the United States. The amount given to the random stranger across the different decisions makes up the universalism measure.
Structure of political ideology in Western countries
As a first step, the authors use their rich survey data to study patterns in political views. The data suggests that individuals’ policy views in affluent Western nations are highly correlated, despite notable variations in their electoral systems, political parties, and demographic makeup. People in one cluster generally desire government expenditure on foreign aid, affirmative action, environmental protection, welfare, and universal health care, while people in the other cluster support government spending on the military, police and law enforcement, and border control. But what determines who belongs to which cluster?
Universalism and policy views
The study documents that heterogeneity in moral universalism plays a central role in shaping the specific structure of policy views described above. Universalism is highly correlated with the respondents’ self-reported ideology on a left-vs.-right scale (see Figure B). Further, across all countries, the study found a clear negative correlation between universalism and support for policy areas typically associated with right-wing ideologies, such as border control, military spending, and law enforcement. Conversely, universalism was found to have a positive correlation with support for the four policy areas associated with left-wing ideologies.
Universalism proves to be a more significant factor in understanding individuals’ policy views and political ideology than traditional economic factors such as income, wealth, or beliefs about government efficiency and equity-efficiency preferences.
The findings of this study suggest a novel explanation for the formation of political ideologies in Western societies. The degree to which individuals exhibit the same level of altruism and trust towards out-group members as they do towards in-group members is a powerful predictor of their policy views and can help explain the grouping of individuals into distinct ideological clusters.