The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article by Jonah Lehrer asking whether humans might not be as averse to paying taxes as our political discussion currently assumes. He describes a study by scientists at Caltech which showed that people dislike inequality. Study participants were put into scanners, and the pleasure areas of their brains lit up more when money was given to others than when money was given to them. This was especially true of those who had started the study “rich,” which was determined by random assignment. Following this study to its logical conclusion, perhaps people who are well off might not be as unhappy as politicians seem to think about paying higher taxes to help the less fortunate.
However, Lehrer points out that the random assignment of riches skews the study. Other studies have shown that this altruism effect is less powerful when the rich feel that their wealth is earned. When we bring this back to politics and tax rates it opens a whole can of worms. What is “earned” in a society where massive advantages (not just wealth) are passed down through the generations? I won’t open that can of worms here, but point you to this post from last year on some of the challenges of “earning” wealth for the lower classes.