Making Americans Less European

How do we explain the divergence between the US and so many other developed countries when it comes to social welfare issues? I looked at the issue last year, noting Spencer Overton’s conclusion that “Less than one percent of the U.S. population makes financial contributions over $200 to federal candidates, and . . . [o]f those who contribute over $200, approximately 85 percent have household incomes of $100,000 or more. . . .” Now Scott Ganz and Kevin Hassett propose that youth sports may actually be driving the difference:

A recent scholarly paper by economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser of Harvard University and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth College found that countries tend to build large welfare states when citizens believe that success in life is largely determined by luck. . . . Americans are remarkably different from Europeans in this regard. If you ask Americans whether the economically disadvantaged are poor because they are lazy or unlucky, 60 percent say lazy. If you ask Europeans, only 26 percent finger laziness. Alesina and his colleagues argue that these attitudes shape society by shaping governmental and social institutions.

But why do these attitudes exist? A big part of the answer may be found in sports. A 1999 study by developmental psychologists Françoise D. Alsaker and August Flammer found American children spend more time participating in athletics than Europeans. In certain cases—America compared with France, for instance—the gap is quite substantial. A 1996 study by Michigan State University sports psychologist Martha E. Ewing and Vern D. Seefeldt, former director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, found that 45 percent of all eligible American youths play in an agency-sponsored league, like Little League baseball or Pop Warner football. That is 22 million children each year who get an infusion of the American work ethos.

I am so glad that US children are spending more time on sports and less on trivialities like physics, foreign languages, or math. Otherwise they might subscribe to such troublingly European ideals as the difference principle, global warming, or the four freedoms.

Admittedly, I have to attribute my own distrust of cultural explanations to time spent at Oxford, where the dons cautioned against resorting to culture as an explanatory variable until you understood the politics, economics, and institutions it’s surrounded by. To begin thinking about why the US is such an outlier in social welfare policy, we might want to look at the work of international scholars (like Kieke Okma) who’ve done much to enhance our understanding of comparative health systems. We might also want to revisit the scorched earth politics of the 1990s.

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