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Edward Glaeser

Success of the left in Europe, the right in US

By Edward Glaeser
February 5, 2010

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AFTER SPENDING a week in India, I was surprised to return to the news that true blue Massachusetts had acquired its first Republican senator since Edward Brooke. I should have been less shocked. It was a mistake to think that President Obama’s sweeping victory was a sign that America had moved significantly to the left. America remains remarkably conservative by world standards, and Senator Scott Brown is just the latest manifestation of that fact.

There are underlying factors that explain the differences between the United States and Europe. Five years ago, my colleague Alberto Alesina and I wrote a book, “Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference,’’ which tried to understand why the United States devotes far less on social services and redistribution than nations in Western Europe. These differences can’t be explained by economic forces. Before taxes, incomes in the United States are more unequal and more volatile, which would seem to call for more, not less, redistribution. Some argue that America has less redistribution because disadvantaged Americans find it easier to climb out of poverty, but poor Americans are actually less likely than poor Europeans to move up the income ladder.

We concluded that the redistribution gap between the United States and Europe could best be explained by America’s greater ethnic heterogeneity and more conservative political institutions. Countries with more ethnic diversity generally spend less on social programs.

Before welfare reform, US states with more African-Americans were significantly less generous to their welfare recipients. My colleague Erzo Luttmer found that people in the United States who live around poor people of a different race are more likely to oppose welfare spending. There is a long historical literature, written by scholars like C. Vann Woodward, documenting the role that racial divisions have played in blunting the appeal of populist redistributors in the United States and elsewhere.

The other half of the difference between the United States and Europe can be explained by differences in political institutions. Richer countries - including the United States - that have have first-past-the-post electoral systems tend to have less redistribution. The welfare state is generally bigger in countries that make it easier for minority groups to elect leaders through proportional representation, as is the case in much of western Europe.

The leftward tilt of European political systems is no accident. Before World War I, American democracy was more liberal than the monarchies of old Europe. But over the 20th century, European constitutions were rewritten, often by socialists, in wake of world wars and revolutions.

Over decades, the success of the left in Europe and the right in the United States has led to wildly different beliefs about the nature of poverty and success. We found that 60 percent of Americans thought that the poor were lazy, while only 26 percent of European share that view. Fifty four percent of Europeans think luck determines income; only 30 percent of Americans concur. These differences don’t reflect economic reality. The American poor work longer hours than their European counterparts. They instead reflect the long-run ability of politics to shape public opinion. Institutions, like proportional representation, that empower the left do a good job of explaining which nations have opinions associated with the left, like the view that chance determines success.

A year ago, I wondered if the Obama victory signaled the declining significance of race and an American lurch to the left. But countries change slowly. In 2009, a Pew survey found that only 29 percent of Americans think that success comes from forces outside their control, as opposed to 52 percent of French respondents and 66 percent of Germans. No one should be surprised that American voters, even in Massachusetts, pushed back against a progressive agenda. By world standards, we are a conservative nation. Those who would change that fact need to dig in for a long fight.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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