Perspectives on Politics

Research Article

Who Benefits from Distributive Politics? How the Outcome One Studies Affects the Answer One Gets

Eric Kramona1 and Daniel N. Posnera2

a1 University of California–Los Angeles, and Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. E-mail:

a2 Massachusetts Institute of Technology. E-mail:


Papers in the burgeoning empirical literature on distributive politics often focus their analysis on the pattern of distribution of a single patronage good—for example, cash transfers, roads, education spending, electrification, or targeted grants. Yet because governments can favor constituencies through the targeting of multiple public and private goods, drawing general conclusions about distributive politics by investigating just one (or even a few) good(s) can be misleading. We demonstrate the severity of this problem by investigating a particular manifestation of distributive politics—ethnic favoritism—in a particular setting—Africa—and show that the conclusions one draws about who benefits from government allocation decisions can vary markedly depending on the outcome one happens to study. Our findings suggest the need for caution in making general claims about who benefits from distributive politics and raise questions about extant theoretical conclusions that are based on empirical work that focuses on a single distributive outcome. The findings also provide a foundation for a new research agenda aimed at identifying the reasons why political leaders choose to favor their supporters with some public and private goods rather than others.

Eric Kramon is a doctoral candidate in Political Science at the University of California–Los Angeles and a pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University (

Daniel N. Posner is the Total Chair on Contemporary Africa and Professor of Political Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (


  A permanent link to supplementary materials provided by the authors precedes the references section.

  For helpful comments, the authors thank Karen Ferree, Miriam Golden, Jessica Gottlieb, Craig McIntosh, Brian Min, Ilia Rainer, and Rebecca Weitz Shapiro; seminar participants at Yale, Berkeley, MIT, and the Working Group in African Political Economy; and the anonymous reviewers at Perspectives on Politics. They also thank Jeff Isaac for pushing us to broaden the implications of what began as a narrower empirical paper. Posner thanks the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences for its support during the period when the paper was drafted.