'Economic unfairness' growing, says BBC poll

Boarded up house in New York state
Image caption Many people feel they have had to bear an unreasonable share of the economic pain

A new poll for the BBC World Service has found widespread perceptions of economic unfairness.

The poll found that more than 50% of respondents in 17 out of 22 countries believe economic benefits and burdens are not fairly distributed in their own nation.

But there was also strong support for free market capitalism.

Among those holding that view, most thought it had problems that could be addressed through regulation.

The poll of developed and developing nations, which questioned almost 12,000 in 22 countries between December and February, found that a majority in most countries saw economic unfairness around them.

In some countries, the view was held by an overwhelming number of respondents: 90% in the case of Spain; 80% or more in France, South Korea and Chile, and close to that level in Russia. In the United States it was nearly two thirds, and it was 61% in the UK.

In one country, Ghana, the perception of unfairness was less than 50%, but still ahead of the number thinking things were fair.

Four countries returned different results. In Australia, Canada, India and Kenya over half said that the benefits and burdens were fairly distributed.

Growing perception

The perception of unfairness has grown since the question was last asked in a similar poll in 2009. The increase was three percentage points for the whole survey, but it has been very marked in a few countries, including Spain, where the jump was 26 percentage points and India, where it was 15. There was an increase of 13 points in the United States.

The poll does not explain these changes or the differences between countries, but there are some obvious possible reasons. Since the 2009 survey the global economy has begun to recover from what has been called "the Great Recession". But it has been very uneven, with the developed economies especially, failing to get any great momentum behind renewed growth. By the time of the most recent survey, several of them were back recession, including Spain.

Developments in the Spanish jobs market are probably a central part of the explanation of changing perceptions. Unemployment has risen from 19% to over 23%, and among young people it has gone from below 40% to 50%.

In the United States, the explanation does not leap out so obviously as unemployment declined between the two surveys. But it is still high by past standards, and the economic recovery has not been very strong.

The perception of economic unfairness did decline in a few nations, including Turkey, Germany and Mexico.

Free market

Given the widespread perception of unfairness, it is striking that they nonetheless showed strong support for free market capitalism, from about three quarters of respondents overall. But most of those say it has problems that can be addressed through regulation.

In no country was there majority support for the suggestion that capitalism is fatally flawed, though that idea got over 40% support in Spain and France. In Spain, that result was again a sharp increase since 2009.

In both those countries, the numbers supporting free market capitalism with no extra regulation were very low: 4% in France, 3% in Spain.

These two countries, along with Turkey, were unusual in returning such low figures, however. The strongest support was, unsurprisingly, in that great bastion of free market ideas: the United States.

Overall, there is much perceived unfairness, but little support for the idea that an alternative to capitalism could put that right.

Polling was conducted for BBC World Service by the international polling firm GlobeScan and its research partners in each country.

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