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Research project

Willing to pay? Testing institutionalist theory with experiments

In laboratory and field experiments in Sweden, Italy, Britain and the US, this project tested hypotheses generated through historical and institutional analysis. We examined tax systems, citizens’ willingness to pay taxes, and attitudes toward redistribution across incomes and generations.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC)

The project received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007-2013) / ERC Grant Agreement n. [295675]

All modern welfare states face a set of very difficult challenges as they adapt to the demographic, economic and fiscal pressures of the early 21st century. These include: fiscal pressures of an aging ‘core’ population; political challenges of maintaining public support for adequate social welfare and education in the context of growing ethnic diversity; growing public frustration with and even distrust of bureaucratic state institutions and political authority; intense pressures to reduce (or at least not increase) taxes for politically powerful constituencies, and the continuing pressures to move from manufacturing-based economies towards service-based economies.

These competing pressures deeply constrain the political choices available to policy makers in all advanced democratic nations. It is simply not true, however, that these forces push all democratic states in the same direction. Quite the contrary: the empirical evidence suggests that modern democracies are maintaining quite different policy trajectories – even in the face of broadly similar political, economic and fiscal pressures.In order to understand the actual policy choices made in different countries, we must examine the interaction between political institutions, public policies, and citizen’s preferences.

Understanding how institutions shape and frame people’s preferences and consequently their choices is pivotal to a full comprehension of societal regulatory mechanisms. Moreover, developing a better understanding of how and to what extent specific institutions shape and modify people’s decisions may allow us to reform and adapt institutional system in a more effective and measured way.

This research project focused more directly on the ways in which the political and institutional context shapes or affects citizens’ preferences. Only when we better understand both what citizens in different polities actually believe about their state, and why, can we build realistic models to understand how their policy systems can be reformed or adapted in the context of the enormous pressures they face today. This research thus combined the strengths of classical historical institutionalist analysis with recent developments in cognitive and evolutionary science and decision theory.

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