A large share of American voters strongly oppose redistribution. They would prefer to cut welfare spending rather than increase taxes. Despite a sharp increase in income and wealth inequality in the last 40 years, this opposition to redistribution has remained stable (Ashok et al. 2015). There is “a world of difference” between redistributive policies and preferences in the US and Europe (Alesina and Glaeser 2004). This has been an important theme in political economy (Alesina et al. 2016, Benabou and Tirole 2006, Picketty 1995).
In a recent article in the New York Times, David Brooks (2017) asked why American voters support policies against their economic self-interest:
“… my stab at an answer would begin in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many Trump supporters live in places that once were on the edge of the American frontier. Life on that frontier was fragile, perilous, lonely and remorseless…discipline and self-reliance were essential…In their view, government doesn't reinforce the vigorous virtues. On the contrary, it undermines them.”
We agree. We argue that opposition to redistribution in the US is part of a culture of 'rugged individualism' rooted in the history of the frontier.
In a recent paper (Bazzi et al. 2017), we investigate the thesis that the American frontier fostered individualism. This was first advanced by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. We examine this frontier thesis at the subnational level, and identify its long-run implications for culture and politics. Historically, frontier locations have had distinctive populations and greater individualism. Many decades after the closing of the frontier, those demographic differences had disappeared, but the cultural legacy persists. Locations that spent more time on the frontier historically exhibit more pervasive individualism and opposition to redistribution today.
The frontier in American history
The early history of the US was one of rapid westward expansion. Until the late 19th century, its territory contained vast tracts of open land. The frontier that divided settled and unsettled locations strongly influenced American culture, fostering the development of rugged individualism – a distinctive combination of individualism and opposition to government intervention.
In our research, we use historical data and modern GIS methods to locate the frontier and track its evolution over time. Following historical sources, we define the frontier line at each time as the line at which population density dropped below two people per square mile. We then define frontier locations as those that were within 100 km of the frontier line, with population density below six people per square mile.
Figure 1 Population density and the frontier line, 1790 and 1890
Frontier populations had distinctive characteristics. They were disproportionately male, prime-age, illiterate, and foreign-born. They also had much higher levels of individualism, as captured by the prevalence of uncommon names for their children. The idea behind this creative measure proposed by Twenge et al. (2010) is that individualistic types usually avoid common names (fewer Johns and Sarahs), which reflect a desire to fit in, and instead choose infrequent names (more Rufuses and Lucindas), reflecting a desire to stand out. This measure fits the social psychological definition of individualism well: the primacy of self-interest, the emphasis on self-reliance, and the regulation of behaviour by personal attitudes rather than social norms.
Differences in demographics and individualism are associated with both defining features of the frontier – low density and isolation. But the frontier was not just statistically different. It was a qualitatively distinct type of society. This can be seen, for example, in the structural breaks in sex ratios and infrequent names at low levels of population density.
Figure 2 Skewed sex ratios and individualism on the frontier
Source: Bazzi et al. (2017).
The frontier presented a unique set of opportunities and challenges. The abundance of land and other natural resources offered many opportunities for profit if they were properly exploited. On the other hand, frontier settlers had to rely on themselves. They often faced multiple threats, including droughts, blizzards, plagues, crop failures, attacks from wild animals, and conflict with Native Americans.
These conditions fostered the distinctive cultural features of the frontier through three key forces:
- Selective migration: Frontier locations attracted people willing and able to thrive in harsh conditions. We are able to show that, among native-born Americans, the individualistic types – proxied by infrequent names for their children – were more likely to migrate to the frontier.
- Adaptive advantage of individualism: Self-reliance was important for protection and to improve living conditions. The innovativeness associated with individualism was useful in coping with novel and uncertain conditions. Individualistic types had greater socioeconomic status and endurance on the frontier.
- Preferences against redistribution: Land abundance and remoteness created the expectation of upward mobility through effort. This would nurture hostility to redistribution. The frontier had relatively low land inequality, high rates of wealth accumulation and high social mobility.
Frontier locations attracted individualistic types, and, in turn, the frontier’s unique natural and social conditions nurtured individualism. The forces were complementary and mutually reinforcing. For instance, a greater adaptive advantage of individualism on the frontier would induce more selective migration of individualists. On the other hand, selective migration of individualists to the frontier would increase the advantage of this trait because, in a society of individualists, collectivistic norms have limited value.
The long-run effects of the frontier on culture and politics
The high levels of individualism on the frontier could have dissipated, but they did not. Rather, frontier experience has shaped the long-run evolution of culture. The early settlers in frontier locations established the conditions for cultural evolution. In the presence of multiple equilibria and path dependence, this formative period was a critical juncture, and frontier experience left a lasting legacy.
To investigate the long-run effects of frontier experience, we measure the number of years that each US location spent on the frontier between 1790 and 1890. The duration of exposure to frontier conditions determined the scope for the three mechanisms through which rugged individualism thrived on the frontier. In other words, total frontier experience determined the intensity of the imprint of frontier culture in each location.
Figure 3 Total frontier experience
Source: Bazzi et al. (2017).
We find that total frontier experience led to persistently higher levels of rugged individualism. Counties that spent a longer time on the frontier still display:
- Higher individualism several generations after the closing of the frontier, reflected in infrequent names in the mid-20th century, and survey responses in the early 1990s.
- Stronger opposition to redistribution and public spending, measured through various surveys capturing different notions of government intervention during the last 20 years.
- Lower property taxes in 2010, a policy outcome that is key to funding local public goods.
- Stronger support for the Republican party in presidential elections since 2000.
- Stronger opposition to contentious government regulations; in this case, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), increases in the minimum wage, a ban on assault rifles, and regulation of CO2 emissions.
Figure 4 Total frontier experience and Republican votes
Source: Bazzi et al. (2017).
Republican Party support can be used as a rough proxy for opposition to redistribution and big government. These themes are prominent across the party’s policy platforms today, and have become increasingly salient due to increased political polarisation. This may explain why the association between historical frontier experience and contemporary Republican support increases in the 2000s, with a particularly large frontier legacy in the 2016 election.
The four contentious government regulations we consider offer further insight into the cultural legacy of the frontier. These four policies create partisan debate today, and can be linked to historical features of frontier life. For example, a strong belief in upward mobility through effort rather than luck might generate opposition to higher minimum wages and the ACA. Similarly, the need for self-defence would inspire opposition to gun regulation, and notions of 'manifest destiny' might lead to opposition to pollution regulation. Interestingly, even accounting for individual-level support for the Republican Party, those in areas with greater historical frontier experience still have greater opposition to these regulations.
"More and more American"
The comparison between US and European attitudes to individualism and opposition to tax redistribution has attracted a lot of attention. Our research establishes the significance of the frontier in American history. In 1893, F J Turner noted that initially “the Atlantic coast…was the frontier of Europe,” but “the advance of the frontier has meant a steady movement away from the influence of Europe,” and ultimately “moving westward, the frontier became more and more American.”
The deep roots of opposition to redistribution in the US might explain its persistence, even in the face of rising inequality. Opposition to government intervention and growing political polarisation may reflect not only a reaction to current events, but also long-standing attitudes that are a part of American culture.
Alesina, A, E Glaeser (2004), Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference, Oxford University Press.
Alesina, A, S Stantcheva, S, E Teso (2017), “Intergenerational Mobility and Preferences for Redistribution”, NBER working paper 21529.
Ashok, V, I Kuziemko, E Washington (2015), “Support for Redistribution in an Age of Rising Inequality: New Stylized Facts and Some Tentative Explanations”, NBER working paper 21529.
Bazzi, S, M Fiszbein, M Gebresilasse (2017), “Frontier Culture: The Roots and Persistence of ‘Rugged Individualism’ in the United States,” NBER working paper 21997.
Benabou, R and E A Ok (2001), “Social Mobility and the Demand for Redistribution: The Poum Hypothesis”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 116(2): 447–487.
Brooks, D (2017), “What’s the Matter with Republicans?” New York Times, 4 July.
Piketty, T (1995), “Social Mobility and Redistributive Politics”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 110(3): 551–584.
Twenge, J M. E M Abebe, W K Campbell (2010), “Fitting In or Standing Out: Trends in American Parents’ Choices for Children’s Names, 1880–2007”, Social Psychological and Personality Science 1: 19–25.
Turner, F J (1893), "The Significance of the Frontier in American History".