The Great Atlantic Divide – Why Europeans Riot (but American’s don’t)

A fireball erupts as civilians shriek and run for cover. A security officer burns and a gas mask-wearing man dashes through the smoke. Men beat each another with bats and stones. Shots are fired and grenades hurled as a city centre descends into chaos. Is this a scene from a warzone? No – this is modern-day Europe.

rage by how will i everAs Greek politicians try to balance the books by slashing pensions and cutting welfare, violence spills onto the streets of Athens. Protestors hold fists skyward and chant “Don’t obey the rich – fight back!” Amidst drastic ‘austerity measures’, such scenes are becoming frighteningly commonplace.

Spain, Iceland, Portugal and now Greece have witnessed their populace flooding the streets in protest of such ‘social injustice’. Europeans don’t like to take things lying down it seems; but this would never happen in the good old USA…

Researchers at Harvard and Princeton University have studied the differences between how Europeans and Americans view social inequality. Their conclusions are startling: Europeans don’t care about the poor but Americans do…

Does Social Injustice Bother You?

Historically, European governments have been generous toward the poor. Nearly half of the European purse is spent on welfare and benefits (compared to less than a third of the US budget). Now the purse strings are being tightened things have changed.

French Cheese Man
Are Americans and Europeans really very different?
American researchers Alensina, Di Tella and MacCulloch examined the results of 124,000 life-satisfaction surveys from both sides of the Atlantic. Analysing the data and correlating it to wealth, social inequality and political views, they uncovered some remarkable trends:

  • Rich Europeans are largely indifferent to inequalities within society
  • Less wealthy Europeans and socialists get upset about the divide between rich and poor; viewing it as their government’s role to tax the rich
  • Europeans dislike the financial ‘inequality’ of American society

But there’s a completely different picture on the other side of the pond:

  • Poor Americans aren’t bothered by the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’
  • Rich Americans are greatly troubled by inequalities within their society
  • Those politically aligned to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ feel the same about social injustices

While Europe Burns, America Debates

Many commentators argue that the main reason for the striking difference between the continents is the ‘American Dream’. To US citizens, their society offers them more opportunities to get rich and move up the social ladder – being poor now doesn’t mean being poor in the future.

MOLOTOV, PETROL BOMBSome say that Europe is ‘obsessed’ with equality: The poor view themselves as being ‘trapped’ and in need of financial assistance to better their standard of living. It therefore makes perfect sense why so many of the public are taking to the streets when they see their existence under threat from cuts.

Could the solution to Europe’s woes be for them to embrace the American model more? Perhaps.

Bagsy it’s not me to suggest it to the angry Greek man with a Molotov please…

UPDATE (9th Aug 2011)! A new post – The Psychology behind the London Riots (and is there anything we can do?)

Thanks for reading – Your comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!



A stunning photo slideshow of the recent Greek riots (FT)

Updates from the Greek Streets in English (Occupied London)


Alesina, A., Di Tella, R., & MacCulloch, R. (2004). Inequality and happiness: are Europeans and Americans different? Journal of Public Economics, 88 (9-10), 2009-2042 DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2003.07.006

16 responses to “The Great Atlantic Divide – Why Europeans Riot (but American’s don’t)”

  1. Very interesting results indeed. Some of them are quite surprising.

    I have a few comments, though…

    No – this is modern-day Europe.

    I really wouldn’t say this. Not just because, trivially, it’s only those countries that are in serious debt, but because there are great cultural differences between the many European countries in this respect; these have at least in part historical reasons, for instance whether previous revolutions have succeeded. The French would have completed a revolution already, while Austria (where I’m from and where I live at the moment) still wouldn’t have any riots (demonstrations, yes, but not riots). The Greeks got rid of their military dictatorship only in 1975; they have a successful revolution in recent memory.

    Their conclusions are startling: Europeans don’t care about the poor but Americans do…

    That really is startling. But it doesn’t follow, as far as I can see, from the rest of your post; nor does it follow from the abstract of the paper. Is it in the paper somewhere?

    Europeans dislike to the financial ‘inequality’ of American society

    What do you mean? Is the “to” a mistake?

    Rich Americans are greatly troubled by inequalities within their society

    Then why don’t they do anything about it? Why do they instead keep granting themselves tax breaks, keep not investing in public transport or education, and so on?

    [In the US, t]hose politically aligned to the ‘left’ or ‘right’ feel the same about social injustices

    Thank you for the scare quotes. They highlight a flaw in the study: by European standards, few Americans are aligned to the left, and just about none of their politicians are. Both Clintons, Kerry, and Obama would comfortably fit in the middle of most, perhaps all, European conservative parties.

    While Europe Burns, America Debates

    That’s just silly. A few streets in Athens are burning. That’s not all of Europe.

    To US citizens, their society offers them more opportunities to get rich and move up the social ladder – being poor now doesn’t mean being poor in the future.

    That’s what many of them still believe. The paper puts it in different terms:

    “We argue that these findings are consistent with the perception (not necessarily the reality) that Americans have been living in a mobile society, where individual effort can move people up and down the income ladder, while Europeans believe that they live in less mobile societies.”

    (from the abstract)

    This perception is indeed inaccurate. It was correct for centuries, but nowadays the USA have less social mobility than many European countries.

    The USA are the land of the working poor, where it is possible for people to have three jobs and still be poor. Over here that’s hard to imagine.

    Could the solution to Europe’s woes be for them to embrace the American model more? Perhaps.

    Do keep in mind that the debt level of the US is already higher than that of Greece. From a US perspective, it is very cute how the EU treats a couple billion in debts as such Serious Business™ that it forces entire countries to wholly redo their budgets.

    If the USA applied to join the EU today, it would be rejected as being too poor before any negotiations had even started. That’s in contrast to Croatia or even Serbia.

    • Hi David,

      Thanks for the comments! Typo duly noted… (and corrected)

      It really is interesting stuff and a great point for discussion.

      ‘Europeans don’t care about the poor but Americans do…’ – is a paraphrase of the authors’ wording:
      “…our results for Europe, where the rich do not seem to be bothered by inequality while the poor are”
      “in the US it is only the rich [who are concerned about inequality” i.e. in Europe it is only the poor themselves are concerned about their own plight – whereas the more wealthy Americans are concerned for the poor. Hopefully my summary above explained this.

      Yes you are quite right, it’s not all of Europe that is ‘burning’ (it was intended figuratively to represent the dramatic increase in social unrest since the economic downturn in many parts of continental Europe) – I hope no one really thinks all our Europe is burning! (although forecasts are that it is going to be quite hot in the UK this weekend 🙂 )

      The authors discuss in more length the point on whether social mobility truly is higher in the US (or whether it is just imagined):
      “Americans are willing to tolerate quite large disparities in wealth as long as they perceive that wealth is the result of effort and that everybody can make it if enough effort and talent is devoted to the task. Obviously, not
      everybody believes that opportunities are truly equal for everybody, but polls show that the more people perceive that there are reasonable opportunities for everybody, the more tolerance there is for inequality.”

      So on the whole, the consensus is that ‘to US citizens, their society offers them more opportunities to get rich and move up the social ladder’

      The paper is fascinating, and if possible I’d recommend trying to get hold of a copy if you can! Thanks for joining the debate!


  2. “Poor Americans aren’t bothered by the difference between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’”

    Really? Then why do they prefer the relatively low wealth inequalities found in Sweden? Without having read the paper, it’s hard to comment but it sounds as if it just reveals that poor Americans are less well informed about their societies than are Europeans (though the utility of talking about ‘rich Americans’,’poor Europeans’, etc. has got to be extremely limited), which can’t really come as too much of a shock to anyone who’s ever turned on a TV or watched a Hollywood film.

    “Rich Americans are greatly troubled by inequalities within their society.”

    Then why do they consistently elect politicians who are making those inequalities worse? It doesn’t seem like a particularly defensible thesis, though perhaps all those billionaires are really voting for the Revolutionary Communist Party (Maoist, of course) and it’s only thanks to the false consciousness of the working classes that America – and the world – gets to suffer under the Republocrats.

  3. It was from this paper:

    “Disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality underlie policy debates ranging from taxation to welfare. We attempt to insert the desires of ‘‘regular’’ Americans into these debates, by asking a nationally representative online panel to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the United States and to ‘‘build a better America’’ by constructing distributions with their ideal level of inequality. First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups—even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy—desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.”

    Rather than the strikingly improbable conclusion that rich Americans are bothered by inequalities but poor Americans aren’t, it seems that lots of them really are bothered by them and wish to live in a society that it is massively less unequal than their own but they’re just ignorant about the facts. Given the shocking levels of misinformation in American society (WMDs, evolution, climate change, birthers, etc., etc., etc.), this doesn’t seem that hard to believe.

      • Americans have to get very miserable to really change the status quo. I believe the boiling point is soon. Our Govt. has squadored our money, borrowed and spent, and won’t pay the bills. Most Americans hate their wars, know we were lied to, and very wary. Our Govt. is so out of touch, they have no idea. I have to wrap this up, I have a pitch fork to sharpen.

        • Hi Colleen!
          I hope that if ‘boiling point’ is reached then the actions taken are rather more purposeful than the mindlessness of the recent riots in Britain…
          Thanks for your comment 🙂

  4. Fascinating stuff. I was weighing up my personal proclivity for rioting with that of my fellow Europeans and find myself terribly lacking. A raised eyebrow here or a ‘harrumph’ now and then don’t really cut it I suspect. I’ve not been checking out flamethrowers on EBay or eyeing up my umbrella as a potential street weapon either.

    I may be lacking in the hot-fever-in-the-blood department but I guess my discomfort over social injustice plays out in my choice of career and within that career whom I choose to spend my time supporting. I wonder if that’s true for many of us. Mind you, it also plays out in what I write about.

    I wonder too if we have the balance between support and enabling right in UK society. That’s a whole other thing.

    Off to turn my nose up at something or maybe, if passion strikes, to curl a lip.

  5. Late to the party, just discovered this blog — but I also think this is why American liberals tear their hair out about low-income Americans so often voting for conservatives (left-leaning people see most of those who vote conservative as voting against their own interests). It’s complicated because of differing ideas about the proper role of government, but in our hearts we all think we are going to strike it rich someday . . . 😉

    — American observer

    • Hi Anna! Thanks for joining the party (although from the comments above, it doesn’t seem to be one of the Boston Tea variety…) and sharing your thoughts 🙂
      I hope to strike it rich someday too… perhaps that’s the American influence rubbing off??

  6. I’m sorry to have to say it, but what this article reveals is just how self-deluded Americans are. There is no “American Dream”. Studies have shown that the US has the LOWEST social mobility among developed nations. In other words, in the US your father’s income is more likely to determine your economic success in life than in any other first world nation. In fact, places like Denmark (presumably because they offer a good education to everyone and has less social inequality) has far more social mobility than the US. So, if you want to experience the American Dream these days, move to Denmark. Otherwise, stay in the US where the rich will keep you in your place with a lot of lies

    • Hi Fred,
      Thanks for commenting 🙂 The ‘American Dream’ sure is a rather contentious idea and I think views are different on the different sides of the ‘pond’.
      Interesting point -, do you have the links / references to these studies? Would make for fascinating reading!

  7. Just came across this link, and it was a solid read. Just wanted to point out to many Eroupeans who claim that american delute themsleves into thinking the “american dream” still exicist are dead wroung. Most studies i’ve seen conclude that the lowest mobility in american society in among those who have actually embraced eroupean ideals. However, poor to middle class people whom embrace the origanal american ideal seem to show atleast moderate success.(this is coming from a second gen american, spanish grandfather whom knew no english as a youth, worked his was up to a top spanish professor at his college) People point to america’s lowering education ranks among the globe, BUT forget its not the government fault. Where the ranks are lowest ALSO have the highest drop out rates and some of the worst attendence rates. Many youth(espcially inner city) have been convinced the american dream is dead. It’s that exact thinking that will kill it. And im sorry, but for any eroupean who believe’s major problems are just in Greece are complety deluting themselves.(riots in England and France, Unemployment in countires like Spain, etc etc.) The strongest economic country, (Germany), has some of the most american ideals.

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