Sunday, January 12, 2014


It's often said that Americans believe in equal opportunity, while Europeans believe in equal results.  Conservatives celebrate this as an example of "American exceptionalism," while liberals regret it as a kind of false consciousness.  Is it true?  There's surprisingly little evidence, but thanks to the International Social Survey Programme that's starting to change.  

I was deliberately ambiguous when I said "Americans believe in equal opportunity."  That could mean that we value it highly.  I looked at that issue in a previous post; on the evidence discussed there Americans are not especially interested in equal opportunity.   It could also mean that we believe that we have it.  That's what I'll look at here.  The ISSP asked about the importance of a number of factors for "getting ahead in life."  The factors are coming from a wealthy family, having well educated parents, being well educated yourself, ambition, hard work, knowing the right people, giving bribes, and having political connection.  People rated each one separately, on a scale of "essential"  to "not important."  I made an average rating of each for all the countries in the ISSP, and then, guided by the results of a factor analysis, combined the items into three scales.  The first scale is the sum of coming from a wealthy family, knowing the right people, giving bribes, and having connections.  The second is ambition and hard work, which would generally be accepted as things that are up to you.  The last is education and parent's education.  This is ambiguous:  your own education is at least partly up to you, but your parents' education isn't.  

The conventional view is that Americans should say the first group is not important and the second group is very important.  It's hard to say about the third.  The US ranked 27th out of 40 on the perceived importance of the first, second on the importance of the second, and seventh on the importance of the third.  The top and bottom rankings on each one were:

Who you know             Effort             Education

China                    Iceland            China
Ukraine                  USA                South Africa
Slovak Republic          New Zealand        Philippines
Hungary                  Bulgaria           Poland


Denmark                  Denmark            Norway
Finland                  Japan              Czech Rep.
France                   Finland            Japan
New Zealand              Venezuela          Finland

The conventional wisdom is right up to a point:   Americans believe that effort is important.  But Americans also rate the factors I call "who you know" as more important than people in most Western European nations.  Belief in a meritocratic society, where effort matters and who you know doesn't, seems to be strongest in New Zealand.  It's interesting that the French, often regarded as pretty cynical, are second-to-last in the perceived importance of "who you know."  Finland, Japan, and Denmark rank low on the perceived importance of all three groups.  This could be because of cultural or linguistic differences, or because people see them as egalitarian societies in which nothing will do that much to help you get ahead (or fall behind).   

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