Race, voting and welfare

I had a review essay in the Australian Financial Review yesterday, looking at a book by Alberto Alesina and Ed Glaeser – Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference. The book sets out to discover why European countries have more generous welfare states than the US. The authors conclude that two factors – voting systems and racial diversity – can explain most of the gap. I then try to answer two questions: How does Australia fit into the argument? And what does this say about the future of welfare systems in an increasingly diverse society?

I’d be grateful for views that readers of this blog had on the piece – though the issues here are sensitive ones, so I’d be grateful if you could plough through my review essay or the book before piling into the debate.

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2 Responses to Race, voting and welfare

  1. Andrew Norton says:
  2. Tom Round says:

    Andrew, I have a couple of doubts about the “proportional representation = welfare spending” thesis. Certainly, in the English-speaking world, the two most extensive welfare states – New Zealand after 1935, and Britain after 1945 – were enacted by single-party Labour governments that won large majorities under single-member, first-past-the-post electoral systems. (And which had faced no Upper House with the constitutional power to veto their program). Canada’s welfare state coincided with long periods of single-party Liberal rule, helped by single-seat plurality against three to four rival opposition parties on both the left and the right of the Liberals. Imagine what measures the Whitlam Government might have enacted had there been no hostile Senate majority against it.

    Even in the USA, such welfare state as does exist was put into place after the Democrats won landslide first-past-the-post majorities (in the Electoral College and – more importantly – in Congress) under FDR in 1936 and LBJ in 1964.

    (On the other hand, the Republic of Ireland and Malta – which are unusual among “Anglosphere” countries for electing their national Lower Houses through proportional representation – have not, until recent decades, had very extensive welfare states. Of course, these countries were also poor.)

    I’m not arguing that it’s first-past-the-post that promotes welfare states: rather, that first-past-the-post gives the largest party more power to enact its goals, unaltered, in a single term or two of office. In some cases, this goal may be to establish a welfare state (eg, NZ Labour after 1935), but in other cases its goal may be to cut back on welfare spending (eg, NZ Labour after 1984). In either case, it gets its way because of the electoral system.

    I did my honours thesis on STV and was grimly amused, while researching, to come across duelling arguments in the same week of reading. On the Labour side, Roy Hattersley and Peter Hain arguing that PR was bad because it favoured deadlock and inaction, made it harder for a reformist party to get its measures passed in legislation; on the conservative side, the staunch democrat John Laughland http://imaginingaustralia.blogs.com/imagining/2004/12/more_axes_to_gr.html, and some young suit from the Conservative Research Office, arguing that PR was bad because it favoured government intervention, obliging the government to bribe small interest groups with spending or else lose its parliamentary majority. Pay money, take choice. (The Conservative Research Office pamphlet was even harder to take seriously: eg, it followed a paragraph warning of how “PR means governments are chosen in backroom deals rather than at the ballot-box” with some fawning over a quotation by John Major).

    The other issue, of racial cleavage, is more convincing. I wonder if the cause is divergence in the proportions of each ethnic group who draw welfare, or whether it mere fact that “them others is living off ma money!” is sufficient. In other words, in a society of 100 people, if 3 of the 12 blue-skinned citizens and 22 of the 88 green-skinned citizens were welfare recipients, would the average green-state voter think “Well, the proportion of them and us who benefit is the same”, or would he or she focus only on the fact that a whole 3 blue-staters are sucking hungrily from the teat?

    Michael Lind made a similar point in his October 2000 Prospect essay “National Good: The ethnically homogeneous nation-state is alive and well. It remains the largest feasible focus for both belonging and democracy (rep at http://www.calbaptist.edu/dskubik/lind.htm)”:

    ‘… Critics of nationalism often assume that national sentiment is somehow incompatible with democracy. In fact, the relationship tends to be the other way around. Almost all stable democracies are nation-states, while multinational states tend to be dictatorships. The reason is simple. In a mono-ethnic society, ethnic power is not an issue; whichever party wins in Sweden will be made up of Swedes. That means that there can be political coalitions based on various other aspects of identity – class, or religion, or political ideology. But in a multi-ethnic society, political parties usually coalesce around the main ethnic groups. Each ethnic group is afraid that the others will seize control of the machinery of government. In Belgium, the Flemings worry that the Walloons will be too powerful; in Canada, the Anglo-Canadians and Quebecois eye one another with distrust. At worst, as in Yugoslavia and Lebanon, the competition between ethnic parties escalates into war…’

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