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Abstract

The notion of a trade-off between efficiency and equality is pervasive in many disciplines across the social sciences. Moreover, an imprecise notion of this well-known dilemma is an integral part of the discourse of politicians and policy-makers. The scientific status of the idea of a trade-off between efficiency and equality is, however, a matter of contention. Philosophical dissections of the idea have already deflated the analytical cogency of most of its versions, while the economic literature trying to assess the empirical relation between growth and equality has shown contradicting results. This article, by focusing on the role this idea plays both in the discourse and strategy of social-democratic parties, and in the social science explanations of their trajectories, argues that the pervasiveness of the notion of the trade-off between efficiency and equality is best explained in terms of the political functions it can fulfill.