My dissertation is about economic inequality and why it thrives in a country with professedly egalitarian values. I propose that people's economic behavior and policy preferences are largely driven by their understanding of deservingness. So long as a person believes that their compatriots are generally served their economic due, economic outcomes require no tampering, at least on moral grounds. People may tolerate grave inequalities--inequalities that trouble them, even--if they think those inequalities are deserved. Indeed, if outcomes appear deserved, altering them constitutes an unjust act. Resources meted to the undeserving, conversely, require correction.
To begin, I show how desert unifies behavioral research into the otherwise disparate notions of justice that social scientists usually cite. Desert I treat as a social institution, one that helps resolve a common multiple-equilibria problem: the allocation of wealth and socioeconomic station. As a natural phenomenon emerging from repeated human interaction, individuals are motivated to ensure desert's reward. The precise definition of desert, however, will vary across cultures and individuals. I use surveys, survey experiments, and economic experiments to determine how different segments of the American population define economic desert. I then use those surveys and experiments to measure the extent to which different sub-populations believe that economic desert is actually rewarded. Finally, I show that these two variables--definition of economic desert and faith in its reward--shape an individual's willingness to redistribute wealth, both in the laboratory and through national policy, and often at a detriment to personal financial wellbeing.