September 26, 2004


America the Conservative: Europe is in the 21st century, but we remain locked in the 18th (Edward L. Glaeser, September 26, 2004, LA Times)

Whether President Bush is reelected or Sen. John F. Kerry prevails, the United States will be the most conservative developed nation in the world. Its economy will remain the least regulated, its welfare state the smallest, its military the strongest and its citizens the most religious. According to data taken from the World Values Survey in the last decade, 60% of Americans believe that the poor are lazy (only 26% of Europeans share that view), and 30% believe that luck determines income (54% of Europeans say so). About 60% of Europeans say the poor are trapped, while only 29% of Americans believe they are. And roughly 30% of Europeans declare themselves to be left wing, but only 17% of Americans do.

Why is the U.S. such an exceptionally conservative nation?

It's tempting to think that American conservatism is the natural result of exceptional economic mobility in the country, but the odds of leaving poverty in Europe are higher than those in the United States, in part because European social democrats enacted national education policies that do a better job of looking after the poor than local schools in the U.S. Instead, American conservatism stems from political stability and ethnic heterogeneity. [...]

The nation's racial heterogeneity also partly explains its conservatism. U.S. heterogeneity sharply contrasts with the much greater homogeneity in Canada, Britain and continental Europe. People are much less likely to support income redistribution to people who are members of different racial or ethnic groups. Ethnic divisions make it easier for the enemies of welfare to vilify the poor, by making them seem like parasites who could be rich but prefer to live on the public dollar. The pro-redistribution populists were defeated in the South in the 1890s by politicians who stressed that populism would help blacks (which was true) and that blacks were dangerous criminals (which was not.) The enemies of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society also employed racial messages that conveyed the idea that welfare recipients were dangerous outsiders who should not be helped. The sharp racial division that runs through American society makes it possible to castigate poor people in a way that would be impossible in a homogeneous nation like Sweden, where the poor look the same as everyone else.

Across countries, ethnic heterogeneity strongly predicts a smaller welfare state. The U.S. states with larger populations of blacks have historically been less generous to the poor (even controlling for state per capita income). Work by Erzo Luttmer, professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, shows that people who live around poor people of their own races say they want the government to spend more on welfare. But people who live around poor people of another race say they want the government to spend less on welfare. Sympathy for the poor appears to be muted when the poor are seen as outsiders.

Increased immigration to Europe is making those societies more heterogeneous, and we have already seen opponents of social welfare, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, Joerg Haider in Austria and Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, use inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric to discredit generous welfare payments. We may like to believe that human beings are colorblind, but the reality is that American diversity has always made redistribution less popular here than in more ethnically and racially homogeneous places.

Yet another reason that nativism is the enemy of conservatism.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 26, 2004 8:47 AM

Le Pen and Haider are a lot of things, but they're not opponents of social welfare. They're probably even more backwards than most European politicians when it comes to the necessary reform of the system.

Posted by: Peter at September 26, 2004 10:33 AM

This notion is ho-hum, old-time Marxist blather. It's not really worth our attention.

The idea is that the ruling classes divide the proletariat with racism so the majority-race proles allow themselves to be exploited because they can feel superior to the minority. It is so absurdly inapposite to the American situaltion as to be beneath ridicule. All we need to is to compare how we live with how the Europeans live. Who would not rather be a Black American than a White frog-eater?

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 26, 2004 1:46 PM

An entire column on American exceptionalism (from one who appears to lament it), without a mention of religion. Mr Glaeser's not too perceptive, is he?

Posted by: brian at September 26, 2004 4:37 PM

Of course 54% of Europeans feel that luck has more to do with wealth than hard work does; for them, it's true.

An analysis of Sweden's wealth distribution, by two Swedish gov't officials, reveals that due to high taxes on income, owning a home in a location that appreciates rapidly, (often a matter of luck), can do more to boost the typical Swedish family's net worth than working for thirty years does.

Lou Gots:

Josephine Baker.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 27, 2004 3:22 AM

In 2004, not 1934.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 27, 2004 8:23 AM

The notion that welfare state apparati are more
easy to expand in racially homogenous societies
seems obvious enough (This is where the far-right and the left meet). It doesn't matter if the
writer sprinkles a little "Marxist Blather" on top.

Nothing changes the fact that the break-up of America proceeds apace (my prediction is 2050).

Posted by: J.H. at September 27, 2004 9:19 AM

The breakup of America won't be for racial reasons though, but for cultural and because it is becoming too large a nation.

Posted by: oj at September 27, 2004 9:29 AM

Breakup of America? That was tried already: it didn't fly.

That such an idea should be considered bespeakes a serious loss of nerve. Secession was treason in 1861 and it would be so in 2061. Those who imagine otherwise do so because they lack the will of a Lincoln, a Grant or a Sherman, or because in their heart of hearts they sympathize with the would-be secessionists,

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 28, 2004 11:44 AM


A nation of 500 million is too large.

Posted by: oj at September 28, 2004 12:17 PM

Nonetheless, that's where we'll be by 2070, give or take a decade.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 29, 2004 5:36 AM


Sooner than that and that's too big to remain a rising nation.

Posted by: oj at September 29, 2004 8:30 AM

But America is not like other places. Our ordered liberty allows us a permanent revolution. We do not have "classes" elbowing each other for a "place in the sun." The reason it works this way is the strength of our civil society and the weakness of our government. It is realy not a "state" the way the rest of the world understands the term.

We are not a "jailhouse of nations," like the former (Former!--I can't hear that enough!) Soviet Union. People are lined up to get in, not out.

The reason some of us foresee dissolution is that they cannot envison treating the people they think might want to secede as traitors and enemies. Don't worry too much: it will not come to that. Almost everybody is going to come on board, and those who are incorrigible folk-enemies will be crushed.

Posted by: Lou Gots at September 30, 2004 8:45 AM