America’s love affair with entrepreneurship complicates any attempt by the Occupy Wall Street movement to mount an effective European-style war of have-nots against haves. The occupiers’ expectations seem built, not on the United States’ generally limited government, but rather on the far more expansive view of state intervention embraced in continental Europe, a distinction that generates profound differences in worldviews.
In a book I wrote with Alberto Alesina seven years ago, “Fighting Poverty in the U.S. and Europe: A World of Difference,” we reported that 60 percent of Americans believe that the poor are lazy, a view shared by only 26 percent of Europeans. Hard facts don’t explain this difference, for the American poor typically work harder than their European counterparts, though they tend to work shorter hours than more prosperous Americans.
We reported that only 30 percent of Americans believed that luck determines income, and 54 percent of Europeans had that opinion. Those numbers still largely hold up: A recent Pew Research Center report finds that only 36 percent of Americans agree that “success in life is determined by forces outside our control,” and 62 percent disagree. By contrast, 72 percent of Germans and 57 percent of the French take the view that outside forces determine success.
Surely, these opinions help explain why 58 percent of Americans, but only 36 percent of Germans, believe that “freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference” is more important than that the “state guarantees nobody is in need.”
Paradoxically, American children are taught that they live in a land of opportunity despite the fact that economic mobility is actually higher in Germany than in the U.S.
I also believe that the case for economic freedom in the U.S. has been helped by the visible example of our most successful entrepreneurs, from Andrew Carnegie to Steve Jobs.
In contrast to the European aristocracy, people whose great wealth and power were guaranteed by birth and who seemed to do little to justify their luxuries, Carnegie and Jobs earned their billions with ingenuity and effort. The recent biography of Jobs by Walter Isaacson reminds us that he was no saint, but he certainly provided plenty of joy in return for his billions.
I believe that we are suffering today both because we have too few entrepreneurs and because our entrepreneurship spreads its benefits too unevenly.
Yet I also fear that a radically more redistributive state, resembling the one championed by the Occupy Wall Street movement, would damage the entrepreneurial spirit that has, for so long, been such an exceptional American strength. •
Edward Glaeser is an economics professor at Harvard University.