Though leftism is diverse, a common thread is a concern with equality. This makes it in part an ideology of status, with political programmes that seek to eliminate status differences or moderate their impact. This is one reason leftists remain concerned with income inequality long after absolute poverty has been eliminated, try to obstruct institutions that reproduce status differences (eg private schools), and favour anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws for groups that have historically had low status.
Almost everyone is status-conscious to some extent, but levels of concern with it vary a lot. Politically, I suspect that people with relatively high levels of status concerns are disproportionately attracted to leftism and to hierarchical conservatism (in Australia, conservatism tends to be populist, but in countries with more aristocratic traditions status-oriented individuals could go left or right). On this theory, those with relatively low levels of status concern would be disproportionately on the liberal/libertarian right, in which individual freedom is prized – who cares what other people think, I am going to do what I want, either alone or with like-minded people.
This paper by Rafael Di Tella, John Haisken-De New, and Robert MacCulloch, using German panel study data, puts these theories to the test. It does so by seeing how supporters of German left and right-wing parties vary in their subjective well-being after changes in occupational status. It finds that left-wingers gain far more lasting benefit from upward shifts in occupational status than do their right-wing countrymen (and women, as the lefties would insist). This is consistent with the theory that leftists are more concerned with status. Whether it is consistent with egalitarianism is another matter; this depends on where the leftists were in the status hierarchy to begin with.
Right-wingers, by contrast, gain more from increases in income (in fact, the subjective well-being of leftists seem to adapt entirely to gains in income, perhaps because in left-wing sub-cultures people have to at least pretend not to be concerned with money). Again, this is consistent with the theory – as money is fungible, it can be put towards a wide range of possible activities, some of which may be status-enhancing in the conventional sense, but others of which may be very individual in in their value, as liberals/libertarians would defend.
In their endorsement of income redistribution, status-oriented leftists are perhaps trying to disrupt a rival status system to protect the importance of their occupation-based hierarchies. It would help explain why they heap scorn on those who lack occupational status and merely have money, which they spend on plasma TVs to put in their McMansions. It would help explain why they are so outraged by full-fee places at universities, which they think let people into the occupational hierarchy system based on money.
Hat tip: Will Wilkinson.
Update: Jason Soon has similar thoughts.