How a quest by elites is driving Brexit and Trump

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Consider an experiment published last year in the journal Science. Four economists tested people with a computer simulation in which they could either be greedy and keep tokens that had real cash value, or share them with others. The catch: If they shared them, the total number of tokens would decline. In other words, the more evenly the pie was divided, the less pie there was to go around. There was a trade-off between equality and maximizing income, a version of economic efficiency.

Among the general American public, about half of those who played the game favored equality over efficiency.

But the researchers also did the experiment at Yale Law School, an elite bastion filled with people who become Supreme Court clerks, White House aides and richly compensated lawyers. Among the Yale students who played the game, 80 percent preferred efficiency to equality. They were more worried about the size of the pie, apparently, than making sure everyone got a slice.

“The people who are destined to fill these elite positions tend to have a strong efficiency orientation,” said Raymond Fisman, a Boston University economist and lead author of the study. “One underlying explanation may be that, if the system has been kind to you, and you find yourself at Yale Law School, you know you’re going to make out O.K. in the end, and so you don’t worry about widening the distribution of outcomes.”