• social justice;
  • impartial-reasoning device;
  • frame of reference;
  • meritocracy;
  • efficiency;
  • workfare;
  • hypothetical societies paradigm

In two experiments, participants judged the fairness of different distributions of wealth in hypothetical societies. In the first study, the level of meritocracy in the hypothetical societies and the frame of reference from which participants judged alternative distributions of wealth interacted to influence fairness judgments. As meritocracy increased, all participants became more tolerant of economic inequality, particularly when they judged fairness from a redistribution frame of reference that made salient transfers among socioeconomic classes. Liberal participants, however, placed a greater emphasis on equality than did conservative participants across all conditions. In the second study, reactions to income transfers depended on the efficiency of the transfers and the identity of the groups receiving the benefits, but conservatives placed a greater emphasis in their fairness judgments on tying benefits to workfare requirements, whereas liberals did not distinguish between unconditional welfare transfers and workfare transfers.