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Race, culture and the welfare state

By Dylan Matthews

AEI President Arthur Brooks's theory that the U.S. is culturally oriented toward free enterprise is problematic as a prescriptive matter, for reasons Matt Zeitlin details here. But I'm not so sure the empirical point, that there's a cultural difference between the U.S. and Europe when it comes to social spending, is entirely wrong. Clive Crook gets this right:

Brooks also stresses the cultural differences between Americans and Europeans, and here I think he is right. There is a gap, and it strikes me as pretty wide. America's political culture has not yet surrendered to the inevitability of big government. It keeps pushing back. Measures that would be uncontroversial in Europe -- such as universal health care -- cause a great fight.

The problem is that this ignores exactly what is culturally different about the United States. The answer, sadly, is largely racial. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. never built up a labor movement, let alone a labor or socialist party, with the power of those in most European states because racial animus prevented the black and white lower classes from organizing together. It was hardly the only factor, but it was a critical one. To this day, race is the best predictor of support for welfare, and during last year's debate, racial animus was correlated with opposition to health-care reform.

When you have a country with a racial minority that stands to gain disproportionately from welfare state expansion, the dominant majority is going to be more resistant. That's a cultural factor, but hardly one I think Brooks would want to embrace.

-- Dylan Matthews is a student at Harvard and a researcher at The Washington Post.

By Washington Post editor  |  May 26, 2010; 4:00 PM ET
 
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Comments

There are other (i think) more prevalent factors. For example, I'd expect the disparity between high income and low income in America vs Europe is probably pretty extreme and has been for some time.

Many on the right feel its wealth redistribution and race is not the predominant factor.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 26, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

The racial angle is interesting and valid, but remember the Palmer Raids, the Red Scare, McCarthy, etc., when discussing why the labor movement was limited. Also the resistance to "social class" as a defining personal characteristic.

Posted by: jduptonma | May 26, 2010 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Of course there are more prvalent factors. However, Mr. Matthews is certainly a lefty and as with most all lefties, any issues is always race.

It's the standard of the American left, especially when it's not true.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | May 26, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

There's a difference between a culture that is against Big Government and one that's against the words "Big Government". Ours is the latter, not the former. Are people in the U.S. overwhelmingly opposed to Social Security? Medicare? National Defense? Public Education? No, they're not. Are they, on the other hand, easily swayed by catch phrases repeated loudly and often and designed to play on their self-image as rugged individualists? Yep.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | May 26, 2010 5:11 PM | Report abuse

Well, first off, the actual rate of welfare spending per capita, both from the individual and government, is not as far apart as one might think. Substantial work has pointed out that tax expenditures in the United States now account for upwards of $650 billion, to $1 trillion dollars in welfare spending done through the IRS tax code. This doesn't even include tax breaks to corporations to provide health benefits.

Furthermore, there is also a strong religious backing to individualism in America. Through the "protestant work ethic" that has been kept around in a lot of regions, The protestant work ethic tells people to ignore things like societal differences, and instead work simply work hard yourself. Even in 2008, over 50% of the US classifies as protestant.

Finally, historically the US has rejected the concept of "class." While it is true the US had a socialist party, and it had a strong labor movement, if you looked at the actual voter turn out for those parties they were quite low. The US was founded on the ideas of individual liberties, and overthrew a government they perceived as treading on that. The cornerstone of the constitution is heavily based on John Locke's "Second Treatise on Government."

While perceptions on race is certainly correlated with welfare transfers, it doesn't make it the end all of the discussion.

Posted by: athroneofsouls | May 26, 2010 5:22 PM | Report abuse

The populations all over Europe endured great trauma during WWII that we never did, since the war was not fought on our shores. European governments coming out of wartime were determined to create less militaristic and more compassionate societies. Countries like Great Britain committed to providing universal health care when their economy was still in shambles. This was a powerful force for building the social democratic programs that Europeans on both the right and the left now accept as entirely non-controversial government obligations.

The USA, on the other hand, came out of the war as a military super power, and as an economic juggernaut. Our focus as a society went to fighting the cold war, policing the world, building infrastructure and promoting capitalism at home (although until 1980 we at least understood the now forgotten importance of progressive taxation and growing the numbers and the prosperity of citizens in the middle class).

Had our wartime experience and aftermath been different, so might have been our outlook on a better social safety net.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 26, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Patrick_M's comment is on the mark.

The devastation of WWII also leveled many class differences. Unlike WWI with a more localized fight, large swaths of Europe had to be rebuilt after WWII.

The Depression and the War unified the U.S. to a strong degree -- so we came out of the process with the GI Bill and strong social safety net for veterans. Racial resentment -- and the perpetuation of segregation -- likely did play into the equation in the U.S.

However, you can't separate class divisions from the equation either. I suspect you'd find that they were just as important.

Posted by: JPRS | May 26, 2010 5:52 PM | Report abuse

"However, you can't separate class divisions from the equation either."

I agree that racism and xenophobia is nearly exploited exploited by politicians as a wedge issue against social welfare spending (see Ronald Reagan and the "welfare queen").

Still, WWII ended our depression, whereas in Europe they had to build from the ground up in the aftermath of the war, and that is a central part of why the Europeans culturally embraced a social democratic philosophy.

We instead relied on our optimism that members of every generation would experience greater individual prosperity than their parents, thanks to the wonders of free enterprise, democracy, and advancing technology.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 26, 2010 6:03 PM | Report abuse

Patrick_M is wrong, as usual, and athroneofsouls is partially correct when he notes, "The US was founded on the ideas of individual liberties, and overthrew a government they perceived as treading on that." The necessary corollary is that the European countries had the chance to follow the enlightenment ideals of individual liberty, self-governance, and the like, but rejected them outright, never allowing their citizens to claim what Americans grew to regard as their birthright. The upheaval of two world wars contributed to the permanent installation of the collectivist welfare state, only in that it allowed certain disreputable types to capitalize on the circumstances, but they were already dealing with populations who had never truly tasted freedom.

Posted by: msoja | May 26, 2010 8:03 PM | Report abuse

Dylan thanks for linking to Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State? I think all journalists should have to read that paper. Some of the commenters above would benefit as well.

Posted by: Castorp1 | May 26, 2010 8:09 PM | Report abuse

Dylan,
Good call. The predominance of racial animus is a key factor for not investing in public goods. Those who disown this are just sticking their heads in the sand. In Europe, there has been less of the idea that we are paying for "those people". Code words are now used in most "conservative" circles but the origins come from open racial stereotypes and distrust.

Posted by: michaelterra | May 26, 2010 8:36 PM | Report abuse

Lawyer saysvery informative thanks

Posted by: attorney2 | May 26, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

The infantile anarchist msoja thinks that it is a productive use of his time to rant about his extreme anti-government beliefs at a blog which is about public policy.

This is analagous to a person visiting a cattle ranch every day in order to stand in the pasture and scream "There should be no cows" over and over and over....

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 26, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

@andrewbaron78: "Are people in the U.S. overwhelmingly opposed to Social Security?"

No, but most people opposed to Big Government think that Medicare should be, at most, a form of enforced private savings, rather than the public Ponzi scheme it is."

"Medicare?"

As opposed to some form of catastrophic insurance combined with healthcare savings accounts?

"National Defense?"

That, necessarily, has to be the Federal Government. No avoiding it.

"Public Education? "

Even if you aren't against public education--and I'm certainly not--many people thing that's a state or local matter, and should be, rather than a Federal matter. Although what public school system does not appreciate an infusion of Federal moneys?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | May 26, 2010 9:28 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the points raised in your post Ezra but I find it curious that you and most liberals fail to connect the dots when it comes to immigration. The glorification of the "golden age" of immigrations (i.e. early 20th century), consistently omits the fact that it was not an unmitigated positive. The uncontrolled immigration of lower class whites ensured that the descendants of slaves would be kept "in their place".

The same is true of the immigration non-debate today. The beneficiaries of unrestricted, unskilled worker immigration are not citizens living at the margin, its the ownership class who employ them and thereby keep wages in those occupations low.

Posted by: Athena_news | May 26, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, I meant Dylan...I'm still not used to all these contributors.

Posted by: Athena_news | May 26, 2010 9:35 PM | Report abuse

--"The infantile anarchist msoja thinks that it is a productive use of his time [...]"--

Unable to make a coherent rebuttal, Patrick?

Europeans have ever been creatures of the state, and that continent's sneering intellectuals have been working to undermine the United States ever since it had the balls to claim all rights for the individual. And now the collectivists are winning, perhaps, have won, even as their incompetent and immoral endeavors tip the whole pot into the fire, and a new dark term of history is upon us.

Posted by: msoja | May 26, 2010 10:50 PM | Report abuse

--"The beneficiaries of unrestricted, unskilled worker immigration are not citizens living at the margin, its the ownership class who employ them and thereby keep wages in those occupations low."--

It would seem obvious to count the immigrants themselves as beneficiaries, else why go to the trouble to cross the border? I would also count the average consumer (and the entire nation) as a beneficiary, since the competition helps keep prices low. Are we to be forever consigned to paying more for buggy whips than is necessary just to suit some notion of dignity arbitrarily applied to workers sufficiently Americanized according to some vaguely defined sliding scale?

To bleat about the ownership "class" is to reveal oneself as a certain kind of limited thinker, hung up in faux revolutionary jargon that doesn't bear inspection. People, immigrating or otherwise, recognized as legal or otherwise, have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their various happinesses, completely distinct and in spite of any nonsense from third parties about other people seeking to further their own interests in mutually agreed upon exchanges.

Posted by: msoja | May 26, 2010 11:05 PM | Report abuse

Rather than saying that some abstract phenomenon called "racial animus prevented the black and white lower classes from organizing together," you might note that the major American labor unions, within the terms of the Wagner Act, steadfastly excluded African-American workers from membership and, through much of the civil rights era, opposed federal workplace diversification measures. This, in turn, led civil rights organizers to undertake a litigation strategy that weakened labor unions in the interest of racial justice. None of this is to blame either union or civil rights organizers themselves; rather, as Paul Frymer has persuasively argued in his book "Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party," the major legislative advances for workers and African Americans alike "institutionalized a labor-race divide," responding to the demands of the two groups under separate regulatory regimes. While racial tensions surely contributed to various failures of American union organizing, the contribution was mediated by existing institutions, and its path of influence was far less straightforward than you suggest in your post.

Posted by: alevitov | May 26, 2010 11:16 PM | Report abuse

@ msoja:

"The upheaval of two world wars contributed to the permanent installation of the collectivist welfare state, only in that it allowed certain disreputable types to capitalize on the circumstances, but they were already dealing with populations who had never truly tasted freedom."

The anarchist msoja bemoans the idea that citizens of countries like Denmark, France, and the UK have never "tasted" the "freedom" now enjoyed by the citizens of Yemen and Somalia.

"People, immigrating or otherwise, recognized as legal or otherwise, have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of their various happinesses, completely distinct and in spite of any nonsense from third parties about other people seeking to further their own interests in mutually agreed upon exchanges."

Truly a classic sentence from our resident anarchist. Write it down, friends, and contemplate the profundity of anarchy as the perfect vehicle to pursue your "various happinesses." And never forget the brainwashed enslaved Europeans were manipulated by "disreputable types" (like Winston Churchill) when they embraced the logic of basic guaranteed rights like health care in advanced societies.

Never stop commenting, msoja, your diseased thinking is truly a freaky treasure from life's rich pageant. What Ed Wood was to cinema, you are to public policy. Rave on, dude.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 2:50 AM | Report abuse

Those who poo-poo the role of race in opposition to wealth redistribution and acceptance of bigger government need to look harder at what is happening in Europe right now.

All of the new hard right parties in Europe are also anti-immigrant, which is to say, they oppose the new wave of minorities that have entered there countries in the last 20-40 years. This opposition forms one of the key pillars (probably the key pillar) of their support, and it is not hidden at all but completely up front in their party platforms and in the content of their speeches and rallies. These parties are all for limited government in part as a mechanism to reduce transfer of wealth to minorities.

It's absolutely true that this is not just about "race." It is really about culture, and race is just a signifier of culture that is very salient to people. To put it another way, all modern hard right parties (including the current Republican party in the US) are tribal and, for lack of a better word, founded in bigotry and/or xenophobia (which is nationalistic bigotry). Whenever you hear Sarah Palin and others talk about "real Americans" she is getting tribal and everyone in the crowd knows it.

Posted by: jdhalv | May 27, 2010 6:36 AM | Report abuse

Ugh, "their" not "there."

Posted by: jdhalv | May 27, 2010 6:51 AM | Report abuse

i just love it when many on here claim to know what's in a man or woman's heart. I'd love to learn to read minds like they do or be able to climb upon that high horse of theirs. But sadly I'm just human (and short). Sigh.

Posted by: visionbrkr | May 27, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse

--"Truly a classic sentence from our resident anarchist. Write it down, friends, and contemplate the profundity of anarchy as the perfect vehicle to pursue your 'various happinesses.'"--

Most of it came from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Patrick, a document profoundly at odds with your statist vision of the world.

Posted by: msoja | May 27, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse

--"The anarchist msoja bemoans the idea that citizens of countries like Denmark, France, and the UK have never 'tasted' the 'freedom' now enjoyed by the citizens of Yemen and Somalia."--

The collectivist Patrick_M relishes the idea that countries like Denmark, France, and the UK may now experience the joy of true anarchy as enjoyed in Somalia courtesy of the inevitably corrupt and misguided policies of socialist politicians applied over the course of several generations. The once mighty are about to fall, and fall spectacularly, taken down by nothing less than their own smug cleverness at presuming they knew what was best for everyone else, and all everyone else had to do was pony up their freedom in the name of the cause. Now that long subdued freedom is going to bust its way out.

Posted by: msoja | May 27, 2010 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure if that's an oversimplification or just wrong. Many states have varying shades of their own health care systems, and that doesn't cause rage country-wide, or even particularly state-wide.

"Europe" doesn't have a health care system, its individual countries do. The main difference is that we live in a federal union of states. I'm willing to bet that if Europe as a whole tried to create a single health care system to serve all Europeans, you'd see a similar type of anguish as such a thing causes here. In fact, I'd bet you'd see complaints of how the prosperous countries were going to have to support those damned irresponsible poor countries in the EU. Would that be about race?

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | May 27, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

"The collectivist Patrick_M relishes the idea that countries like Denmark, France, and the UK may now experience the joy of true anarchy as enjoyed in Somalia courtesy of the inevitably corrupt and misguided policies of socialist politicians applied over the course of several generations. The once mighty are about to fall, and fall spectacularly, taken down by nothing less than their own smug cleverness at presuming they knew what was best for everyone else, and all everyone else had to do was pony up their freedom in the name of the cause. Now that long subdued freedom is going to bust its way out."

Shorter (and less bombastic) msoja:

Democracy is bad, anarchy is good.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

"The main difference is that we live in a federal union of states."

And that union is a country. It is not as though we reformed our domestic private health care system in a treaty with Canada and Mexico. Jeesh.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

@Patrick_M

I'm not sure if you have a point. All countries are exactly the same if we call them "countries"? A federal union of states is nothing like Europe as a whole, nor is it like any of the individual countries there. We're simply different in our organization, and this leads to a naturally different political landscape and friction points.

If Europe as a whole became more like us, i.e., if they had an overarching central government with equivalent powers a la the United States federal government, you'd see similar frictions. As it is, it's a classic apples to oranges comparison. You'd be better off comparing the governments of individual countries in Europe to individual states here.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | May 27, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

roquelaure_79,

We don't have 50 different armies, or 50 different Social Security Administrations. We resolve national issues on a national level. Even when we do, we often allow for individual state variances, such as the state-based exchanges in the health care law, and the way that Medicaid benefits are administered.

We are one country; we are not the EU.

Posted by: Patrick_M | May 27, 2010 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"It would seem obvious to count the immigrants themselves as beneficiaries, else why go to the trouble to cross the border?"

Obviously misguided. Afterall, isn't the objective of national immigration policy supposed to be to strenthen the existing fabric and contribute to the betterment of citizens? How exactly does it help the citizenry in the US to increase the number of residents living at the margin? The fact that those folks might be better off than wherever they came from is irrelevant to whether or not US society is improved by their presence. And since when are the needs and aspirations of external peoples the primary concern of domestic policy?

Before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed, Congress assured the citizenry that the new family reunification provisions would be insiginificant in their results. In actuality, nrestricted visas for low skilled family members have swamped the whole system and we hear over and over about the "traditional" primacy of keeping families together.

In 1986, people were told that the amnesty program would be a one time thing and that the enforcement of hiring rules would avoid future problems. To avoid compliance, employers started using subcontractors and the overall lot of many classes of employees deteriorated.

All the talk about "a path to citizenship" ignores the reality that our immigration policy is being directed, not in the interests of the citizenry but for the benefit of non-citizens. And contrary to popular wisdom, the racism inherent in the immigration debate is not against immigrants but against the non-white citizens who are most affected by the liberal left's misplaced sympathies.

Posted by: Athena_news | May 28, 2010 2:04 AM | Report abuse

--"The fact that those folks might be better off than wherever they came from is irrelevant to whether or not US society is improved by their presence."--

From a humanitarian point of view, it's not irrelevant at all. For the same reason, I always marvel at the bleating about all the jobs ostensibly "shipped" overseas. I say bless the little blighters. They're humans, too.

And there is no such thing as "US society", especially as can be "improved" or not. It's snobbery, and unrelated to reality.

We should welcome people here with open arms, but not food stamps, "free" education and health care. Of course, our native citizens shouldn't have the luxury of sucking that stuff up, either.

Posted by: msoja | May 29, 2010 1:20 AM | Report abuse

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