What is the role of government?

Breznau New Image Culture and Welfare State Attitudes blogNate Breznau, Mannheim Centre for European Social Research (MZES), Germany

Individuals have all kinds of ideas about what their governments should and should not provide for them and others. Their preferences for the ideal role of government can be particularly heated or contentious due to the massive amounts of goods and services that governments provide via social welfare policies; things like pensions, health care and (un)employment. These attitudes are also a battleground for political parties’ platforms, some crying for taxing the rich and redistributing to the less rich and others for cutting government spending on social welfare. These attitudes also shape individual voting behaviors and provide policymakers with ques for how to make policy to keep their constituents happy (and thus keep their jobs).

To investigate these attitudes, social scientists typically use surveys. However, when employing survey data they almost always treat these attitudes as though they have the same meaning across the globe. Instead of worrying about the meaning of a “role” of “government”, scientists are interested in greater or lesser support for the government intervening into the social welfare of individuals – as they theorize that it simply exists on a continuum. Put into a larger ideological framework, they try to understand why some individuals and entire societies (on average) are more socialist or social democratic while others are more liberal.

The assumption that social welfare attitudes have the same meaning everywhere may itself be erroneous. If so, trying to compare countries on a welfare attitude continuum will lead to unreliable findings.

In a paper prepared for the European Social Survey Users Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland, 2016, I report results of research finding that these attitudes differ in their meaning across Europe. In particular, those societies formerly under Communist rule in the Soviet Union opposed to those Western European societies who were anti-Communism. As psychologists and attitude researchers point out: an attitude requires an attitude object and an evaluation of that object for its formation. The attitude object ‘role of government’ attitude is the state, i.e., the government. In formerly Communist societies the state is one entity. It is a total entity regulating all socio-economic affairs. There is no market that exists legally as independent from the state, all production means, and goods and services are centrally controlled. In Western societies there is private production and markets, and the government merely intervenes (rather than controls) these private markets to try and curtail less desirable outcomes, for example by pooling some of the most common social risks, especially those associated with wage labor and ageing.

It turns out that these distinct attitudes toward the role of government are evidence of cultural values shaping attitudes. These values are persistent still in 2008 almost 20 years after the end of the Soviet Union’s Communist empire. But the values are decaying. The stronghold of these Communist values appears in older persons born before 1960 who lived and worked under the Communist system.

Max Weber made a claim long ago that value-rationality (Wertrationalität) is the process transmitting values into behavioral outcomes in individuals. Responses to a survey are a kind of behavior, or at least a suggestive behavioral response. When individuals who come from a cultural group that has certain shared social values, they are more likely to express certain survey responses that reflect these values. Weber’s evidence presented largely in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus) was drawn from the Protestant Reformation and how certain pecuniary values strengthened and reified economic attitudes and behaviors in the Protestant religious culture and its concomitant institutions. These values thus fueled the rise of modern capitalism in Northern Europe.

I find evidence that Communism may have had a similar value-based impact on welfare state attitudes. The two sides of the Cold War in Europe were engaged in intensive cultural engineering and attempted to spread values that supported each side and punished values that stemmed from the other. This took place in educational institutions, the media, sports organizations, religious (and elimination of religious) organizations, and many aspects of society. These coercive and persuasive efforts led to cultural values that are still evident today.

The strength of my arguments lie in the usage of structural equation modeling where various theoretical models are turned into statistical models that are then applied to European Social Survey data. The theoretical models that fit the data best are those that separate attitudes by grouping societies into former Soviet and Western Europe. Again, it is not the observed level of these attitudes as more or less supportive of the role of government in providing social welfare that is important here, but instead it is the observed patterns of responses in individuals that suggest a divergence in the underlying meaning of the role of government as an attitude object.

If nothing else structural equation models make cool artistic representations of theory and data as in the following.

Breznau New Image Culture and Welfare State Attitudes blog

The above figure displays standardized factor loadings in the ovals connected to the solid arrows. In formerly Soviet societies, the average loadings are higher than in Western societies for the underlying attitude of ‘Role of Government’. Thus, when respondents answer questions on the ideal role of the government in providing health care, old-age care, jobs, unemployment insurance, and child and family care provisions, those in formerly Soviet societies such as Russia and Ukraine have something more cohesive and total in scope as an attitude object, whereas in Western societies such as Germany and Sweden they understand something more liberal, exogenous to the market, with slightly more variation by survey question or less of a cohesiveness.

Nate Breznau is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Mannheim Centre for European Social Research in Germany. The results of this study and the working paper may be accessed on Nate Breznau’s academic website.

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