Policymakers must ration healthcare. This necessity became salient during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some policymakers took that opportunity to reduce inequality of health outcomes at the expense of overall health gains. There is a literature that seeks to quantify the optimal trade-off between efficiency and equality in health outcomes: economists employ surveys to quantify the public’s preferred level of equity/efficiency trade-off. An odd result from these studies is that a non-trivial subsample of respondents choose to “level down” i.e., they choose as though an additional year of life delivers negative utility to society if it accrues to the most privileged. In an experiment of US and UK respondents (n = 495), we compare equity/efficiency trade-offs across an abstract scenario along the lines of that presented in previous surveys versus a COVID-19 scenario, where it is made explicit that healthcare rationing is a real and current necessity occasioned by the pandemic. We find that preference for “levelling down” is reduced in the COVID-19 scenario relative to the abstract scenario. This result implies that, at least in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, previous results have overestimated the public’s willingness to sacrifice overall gains in population health in order to reduce inequality of health outcomes.


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Cite as

Tufte-Hewett, A., Bridger, E. & Comerford, D. 2023, 'Public preferences to trade-off gains in total health for health equality: Discrepancies between an abstract scenario versus the real-world scenario presented by COVID-19', Rationality and Society, 36(1), pp. 66-92. https://doi.org/10.1177/10434631231193599

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Last updated: 18 March 2024
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