Why do so many Americans hate the welfare state?

Unthinkable: The US’s Protestant roots and Europe’s Catholic roots may help to explain contrasting attitudes to equality

Individualism runs deep in American culture. So too firm resistance to "big government". Europeans look upon this state of affairs and tend to blame political leadership of the United States but Prof Elizabeth Anderson believes there's a more fundamental source of resistance to egalitarian or progressive reforms. It comes from religion.

“You know,” she says, “America was so dominantly Protestant for such a long time. We have a substantial number of Catholics but the culture was really shaped by Protestants – in term of their total cultural domination of the United States at its founding, and really continuing.”

One aspect of this, she highlights, is the adoption of a Protestant work ethic as a core value in society. This has a positive side – in honouring human labour – but it also has a negative side.

“There is a profound suspicion of anyone who is poor, and a consequent raising to the highest priority imposing incredibly humiliating, harsh conditions on access to welfare benefits on the assumption you’re some kind of grifter, or you’re trying to cheat the system.


“There is no appreciation for the existence of structural poverty, poverty that is not the fault of your own but because the economy maybe is in recession or, in a notorious Irish case, the potato crop fails.”

Common cause

Anderson has emerged in recent years as one of the prominent theorists on social justice in the US, drawing praise for finding common cause for Democrats and Republicans. A recent New Yorker profile said, because of her non-partisan style, "Anderson may be the philosopher best suited to this awkward moment in American life."

Her reference to the Famine is typical of the way she reasons as she blends history with philosophy to try to understand why we think the way we do. “Part of the argument I’m making is we are prisoners of past ways of thinking that are rooted in ideas that we have long since rejected.”

She spoke to Unthinkable, while in Dublin this week to deliver the joint UCD school of philosophy and Royal Institute of Philosophy annual lecture on the work ethic, a focus of her current research.

Where does the work ethic originate?

Elizabeth Anderson: “It was invented by puritan ministers in 17th-century England – it’s all coming out of Calvinism. Relentless, disciplined work is the key duty.

“Originally, the work ethic was a theological doctrine which tied disciplined labour to salvation. You can see how it secularised over time this turns into pure capitalist ideology.

“However, when you go back and read these theological texts you discover there is a whole other side to the work ethic which in fact is very pro-worker… One thing they are constantly stressing that every single person in the division of labour is carrying out God’s will, or is doing sacred activity, and should be respected as such.”

You argue this “progressive work ethic” has been overlooked in favour of the puritan ethic. Blaming the poor for their lot also seems to be very common today.

“Yes, it’s huge – the presumption that because someone is poor it must be because they are lazy and undeserving.

“We have cast off theological assumptions but we are still prisoners of these old ways of thinking which are deeply out of touch with reality and have incredibly harsh and negative consequences for people.

“Also, I think this work ethic ideology lies at the root of prejudice against whole groups of people. So the English notoriously considered the Irish lazy, lacking in the work ethic, just as [white] Americans think of blacks that way. The work ethic lies very deep in the way western countries have conceptualise the superiority of their groups.”

Many ethical problems today are presented as matters of individual rather than collective responsibility. Instead of looking at structural injustices, for example, people are told to recycle more to save the environment, or to manage their workload better to avoid exploitation. Where does this bias come from?

“One way to think about it is this is another bizarre legacy of Calvinist thought. It’s really deep in Protestantism that each individual is responsible for their own salvation.

“It’s really an anti-Catholic thing, right? The Catholics have this giant institution that’s going to help people; and Protestantism says, no, no, no, it’s totally you and your conscience, or your faith.

“That individualism – the idea that I’ve got to save myself – got secularised over time. And it is deep, much deeper in America than in Europe – not only because there are way more Catholics in Europe who never bought into this ideology – but also in Europe due to the experience of the two World Wars they realised they are all in the boat together and they better work together or else all is lost.

“America was never under existential threat. So you didn’t have that same sense of the absolute necessity for individual survival that we come together as a nation. I think those experiences are really profound and helped to propel the welfare state across Europe post World War II.”

You’re well known for promoting the idea of relational equality. Tell us a bit about it.

“For a few decades now I’ve been advancing the idea that the fundamental aim of egalitarianism is to establish relations of equality: What are the social relations with the people around us? And that aims to take our focus away from just how much money is in my pocket.

“People do not exist for the sake of money. Wealth exists to enhance your life and not the other way around. We should be focusing on what are we doing to each other in our obsession with maximising profits. How are workers being treated? How are consumers being treated? How is the environment being treated?”

You advocate co-determination, or the joint management of businesses by workers and shareholders, as a way of advancing relational justice. Is that a hard sell in the US?

"Absolutely. But it turns out if you don't attach a partisan label to the idea of co-determination – if you don't say Elizabeth Warren supports this, or this is a Democratic idea – it's actually very popular."