Does the Threat of Overthrow Discipline the Elites? Evidence from a Laboratory Experiment

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The threat of revolution disciplines the elites, inducing them to strategically share some of their wealth to prevent social unrest. This behavioral conjecture is prominently used to explain franchise extension and welfare-state expansion. We test this conjecture in a controlled laboratory experiment. We model a society whose members can produce wealth by coordinating conflicting interests. Coordination is facilitated through a status ranking. Compliance with the ranking yields an efficient yet inequitable payoff distribution. Between treatments, we vary whether overthrows—which reset the status ranking via collective disobedience—are possible and whether voluntary redistributive transfers—which high-status players can use to appease low-status players—are available. In contrast to established thinking, we find that, on average, the threat of being overthrown does not lead to more wealth sharing, as high-status players fail to provide sufficient redistribution to prevent overthrows.

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