Friday, June 3, 2011

Postscript and Preview

 In my April 22 post on attitudes towards redistribution, I mentioned the idea that support for redistribution was motivated by envy.  James Lindgren attributed this idea to Ludwig von Mises, in a book from the 1920s, but I thought it must go back farther than that.  I did a search in Google Books, and found that it appeared in Inequality and Progress, by George Harris, published in 1897.  I had never heard of Harris, and wondered whether his book was worth reading, so I looked for reviews.  I found an unsigned review in the Journal of Political Economy, which briefly summarized its contents, and then offered the following judgment:  "The book contains little that is new.  The printer is to be congratulated on the workmanship of the volume." To my surprise, I didn't find any prominent thinker before von Mises who argued that the demand for redistribution reflected envy.  Before then, even people who opposed it seemed to think that the motive was either straightforward self-interest (on the part of the poor people) or generosity and compassion (on the part of rich people). 

The term "American exceptionalism" has been used by academics for quite a while.  Basically, it's the idea the values and opinions Americans are substantially different from those of people in other economically developed countries, that the differences go back far into the past, and that they're likely to persist.  Between 1940 and 1990, it appeared a total of 13 times in the New York Times.  Sometime in the last 10 years, the term got picked up by political and media figures on the right.  Since 2010, it's appeared 55 times in the New York Times, including quotes from Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Newt Gingrich (basically saying that Obama doesn't believe in it and they do).  One of the more interesting recent examples was a piece in the Wall Street Journal saying that support for Israel was a key part of American exceptionalism--not just a feature of American policy, but something that ordinary people were deeply committed to (and, of course, that Obama didn't understand that).  I'd never seen that claim in the academic literature, so I looked for data. 

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