Matias Engdal Christensen

Reconsidering Material Self-Interest in Welfare State Preferences: The Psychology of Everyday Economic Context

The welfare state is a central pillar in modern societies. Not only does it provide insurance against labor market risks, the welfare state also (re)distributes resources across individuals, typically from the wealthy to the poor. Because the scope, resources, and range of the welfare state rest on public support, a vast literature examines the micro-foundation of welfare state preferences. While material self-interest is often appointed as a central explanation, recent research has begun to question the relevance of self-interested material concerns. In this dissertation, I contribute to this significant discussion by combining theories of context effects, consumption, and social comparison with the political economy literature on redistribution and social insurance to develop expectations about when citizens’ welfare state attitudes and behavior are reflected by material self-interest. Using various empirical strategies, my findings suggest that contextual and psychological conditions can activate the influence of material self-interest on citizens’ choice to take up publicly facilitated supplementary unemployment insurance. Moreover, my co-authors and I show that the local income composition can trigger material self-interested attitudes among the rich. Finally, I find that material self-interested attitudes of the economically poor can be suppressed because their perception of bottom-end inequality makes them reluctant to support redistributive measures. Overall, the dissertation demonstrates that citizens are - under certain conditions - driven by material self-interested concerns in their welfare state attitudes and behavior. This provides valuable insights for policymakers in designing new welfare state policies that intend to address economic challenges in the future.


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