In a fascinating article, The Economist reports on a study showing that “attitudes toward redistribution have a strong cultural component.” They point out:
Understanding why people hold different opinions on the topic interests economists, not least because citizens’ attitudes towards such matters are likely to influence the governments they elect…. opinions about redistribution also seem to vary from one country to another. And this has led economists to ask whether “culture” or “values” independently influence those opinions.
Surveys show that Americans are on average less favorable toward redistribution of income and wealth than Europeans.
Barack Obama got an unsolicited reminder of this on the campaign trail in 2008, when an off-the-cuff remark about the need to “spread the wealth around” provoked some shrill retorts. Such views, said Mr Obama’s detractors, went against the grain of American values. [Some might call the retorts “hearty” rather than “shrill,” but the Economist is a British magazine so they probably don’t like anyone to critize The One.]
And within Europe, citizens of countries that used to be communist are more disposed toward redistribution than western Europeans. Ideologically, those who lived under communism are anti-communist. But the idea of wealth distribution has entered their mentality as part of their culture.
Two Harvard scholars, Erzo Luttmer and Monica Singhal, studied the attitudes of immigrants to see how the culture of their country of origin affected their views on redistribution.
Even after controlling for income, education and other relevant economic and social factors such as work history and age, views about redistribution in an immigrant’s home country are a strong predictor of his own opinions. Indeed, this measure of “cultural background” explains as much as income levels, and three-fifths as much as income and education combined. These results hold even for immigrants who moved 20 years before they were surveyed; they cannot be attributed to people not having had time to adjust their views.
And the effect lasts for a while:
Even more convincing evidence of the impact of culture comes from second-generation immigrants. The opinions of children born in the host country about the desirability of redistribution are strongly influenced by the norms that prevail in the countries their parents came from. That denotes some transmission of values and attitudes between generations. But the effect of culture is only about two-thirds as large as it is for foreign-born immigrants. Although durable, it apparently fades with time.
The article concludes:
Immigrants from pro-redistribution places, and their children too, are much more likely to vote for political parties that champion greater redistribution of wealth. That leads the authors to ask whether, over time, the composition of immigration into a country could end up having a meaningful impact on its tax policies.
Obviously it could. And matters far beyond tax policies. What about people who have lived for years in refugee camps, their needs being taken care of, however poorly? What might their attitudes be towards self-sufficiency? We’ve seen how some of the Iraqi refugees seem to expect everything to come to them without much effort on their part (while others are quite enterprising).
As for immigration in general, we used to allow in mainly people from countries that were culturally similar to ours. But now the situation is quite the opposite. Very few immigrants come from countries where entrepreneurship and individual initiative are cultural norms. Those who do tend to be successful, like Indians and Chinese. (Funny how quickly the Chinese reverted to those norms once communism relaxed its grip.) Every member of Congress should read this study. But not only won’t they read it, most wouldn’t care anyway. They’re too busy redistributing the wealth.
Hat tip: Mark Krikorian.