America the Conservative

Edward L.Glaeser is a professor of economics at Harvard University, director of the Rappaport Institute and Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Kennedy School of Government, and author, with Alberto Alesina, of "Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference."

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 Constitution was designed with checks to protect private property and to ensure that change happens slowly. The U.S. elects its representatives by majority vote, which leads politicians to cater to the voter in the middle, not the poorest. By contrast, proportional representation in many European countries gives greater voice to politicians who stand for minority groups like the poor. In most European countries, proportional representation is also strongly related to spending on social programs.


The sharp separation of powers in the U.S., as the Federalist Papers predicted, has reduced the extension of government. Battles between Congress and the presidency -- such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fights with the Senate in the late 1930s -- have historically stymied the growth of the welfare state. The powerful, unelected Supreme Court has supported conservatism at many critical periods in our history. For example, in the late-19th century, it declared the income tax unconstitutional; in the 1930s, the court ruled that the New Deal was unlawful; and in 2000, it intervened to decide the presidential election. The nation’s federalist structure, furthermore, limits states’ welfare spending because they fear the flight of capital and wealthy residents.

One doesn’t need to embrace Beardian conspiracy theories to believe that the Constitution was designed to limit the central government’s ability to extract resources from wealthy citizens. As a result, it has succeeded in checking the rise of an American socialist state while all the larger countries in continental Europe have socialism-friendly political institutions.

It wasn’t always so. At the start of the 20th century, the U.S. looked progressive compared with Europe’s empires. The big difference between the U.S. and Europe is that the U.S. kept its 18th century Constitution, while most European countries discarded theirs. In a wave of revolutions and quasi-revolutionary general strikes, European countries, one by one, replaced their older conservative constitutions with ones often designed by socialist or labor leaders.

Some small nations introduced proportional representation before World War I in response to uprisings that threatened their governments’ stability, but the war was a watershed for great powers like Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary. These nations’ armies had traditionally checked militant labor unrest, just as in the United States, but during World War I, mass mobilizations and steady demoralization broke the armies’ will to fire on rioters. As the armies’ policing power vanished, empires were upended by left-wing revolutions. The new constitutions of these countries were written by socialist leaders like Friedrich Ebert, who were determined to craft institutions, like proportional representation, that would entrench socialist power. France had a constitution drafted by a socialist-heavy group, but this had to wait until after its defeat in World War II.


By contrast, the U.S. has not lost a war on its home soil and thus has never faced the internal disruptions caused by such a collapse. The U.S. military and private armies, like Pinkerton’s, have always been able to subdue agitators, such as the Homestead, Pa., strikers who faced off against Andrew Carnegie in 1892 and the jobless World War I veterans who marched to Washington in 1932 to ask for their bonus, and were dispersed -- with swords drawn -- by Army troops.

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.