The Boston Globe has a piece about American political scientist Robert Putnam’s findings that racial and ethnic diversity tends to undermine social cohesion and civic participation. It features the following paragraph:
In a recent study, [Harvard economist Edward] Glaeser and colleague Alberto Alesina demonstrated that roughly half the difference in social welfare spending between the US and Europe…can be attributed to the greater ethnic diversity of the US population. Glaeser says lower national social welfare spending in the US is a "macro" version of the decreased civic engagement Putnam found in more diverse communities within the country.
Which led me to this review (.pdf) of Glaeser and Alesina’s book (an earlier paper by the authors themselves making the same points is here (.pdf), which finds that voting systems and racial diversity explain most of the difference in social welfare spending:
Voting systems affect redistribution by changing the incentives of politicians. In majoritarian systems, where each politician represents a single electorate (as in the US and Australian House of Representatives), politicians’ main incentive is to look after the interests of their local areas….
By contrast, under systems of proportional representation (as in many European countries and New Zealand), several politicians represent the same district. This leads to a different incentive rather than aligning themselves with a region, politicians tend to develop class-based affiliations, increasing the pressures for universal programs, which often redistribute resources from rich to poor….
The remaining difference in welfare spending, Alesina and Glaeser conclude, can be explained by the fact that the US is more racially diverse. A variety of studies on prejudice have shown that people tend to be hostile to those who are different from them along some salient dimension. Often, the most important dimension is race or ethnicity. In the US, a quarter of the population is African-American or Hispanic. In Sweden, 95 per cent of the population are of the same race, ethnicity and religion. The potential to exploit racial antipathy will therefore be considerably greater in the US than Europe.
That racial diversity is an obstacle to forging a common coalition around distribution from rich to poor has often been noted. Writing in the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels anticipated that America’s ethnic divisions would impede the growth of a US socialist movement….
Race and redistribution are powerfully linked. Alesina and Glaeser show that US states that are more ethnically diverse tend to have more negative attitudes towards welfare, and lower levels of social welfare spending. The same pattern holds internationally countries with more racial and ethnic heterogeneity also tend to spend less on welfare programs. The simplest interpretation of this finding is that people are less generous to those who are different from them, but Alesina and Glaeser also highlight another factor: politicians who use racial hatred to discredit redistributive policies. Barry Goldwater, Pat Buchanan, Jorg Haider, Jean-Marie LePen and Pauline Hanson have all used hatred against racial minorities as a way of building an anti-redistribution constituency.
Fits in nicely with Goetz Aly’s recent book on National Socialism (G), which argues that Hitler purchased the support of many sectors of German society with promises of social-welfare benefits. National Socialism was really this thesis turned into proactive policy — ethnic non-Germans were killed or forced into slave labor, and their property was given to ethnic Germans.
To forestall comments from certain readers, let me note, obviously, that neither I nor any of the people cited in this message claim that social welfare programs are an expression of racism. This is just a possible explanation — one that seems to be getting more convincing every year — for the difference between American and European social welfare policies.