Does diversity affect what we think about the welfare state?

As part of his well-deserved early career award from the Academy of the Social Sciences, Andrew Leigh was asked to write a paper for their journal Dialogue. As he explains on his blog, he chose to write on something a ‘bit provocative’, the possible negative effects of ethnic and linguistic diversity. One of these possible negative (sic) effects is reduced support for the welfare state.

For this hypothesis, he draws on the work of Alberto Alesina and Ed Glaeser, who argue that one of the major reasons for the much smaller welfare state in the US compared to Europe is that the US is more racially diverse. Or to put it more bluntly, the wealthy white majority isn’t too keen on giving money to the poor black minority. Extrapolating from this, Andrew notes that Australia’s welfare state is small compared to Europe’s, and that our linguistic diversity is higher than either the US or Europe, and therefore ‘our high level of linguistic diversity helps explain Australia’s relatively small social welfare sector’.

I doubt it. Indeed, you only need to keep reading Andrew’s paper to find at least one reason for doubt. Using answers to a question in the Australian Election Survey about whether people agree or disagree with the proposition that ‘income and wealth should be redistributed’ he finds that only in Queensland is there are a statistical relationship between disagreeing with the proposition and levels of local ethnic diversity. This he puts down to the relative success of ‘racially-driven politics’ in that state, with One Nation its most public manifestation. But what about all the other states? They, after all, contain the vast majority of seats in the Australian Parliament.

My CIS colleague Peter Saunders has argued that this analysis of the comparative welfare states misses important cultural differences between the ‘Anglo’ countries and Europe. The Anglosphere countries have much older and more powerful traditions of individualism than Europe. Alan Macfarlane wrote a well-known book on this, The Origins of English Individualism, tracing it back many hundreds of years. In particular, the Anglo countries have a much greater belief in self-reliance. Continue reading “Does diversity affect what we think about the welfare state?”