American exceptionalism is distinctly double-edged. The United States is not as egalitarian in economic terms as the rest of the developed world. It has the highest proportion of nonvoters in national elections, as well the highest rates of violent crime and the biggest prison population (in per capita terms). Thanks to its meritocratic orientation, it is among the leaders in the unequal distribution of income. Gauged by the Gini coefficient, the social scientist's standard measure of income inequality, the U.S. score of 37.5 is almost 10 percent higher than that of the next closest country (Britain) among the Western democracies, and far above Sweden's 22.2. To put it in simpler terms, the richest 20 percent of Americans have incomes about nine times greater than the poorest 20 percent, while in Japan and Germany the affluent enjoy incomes only four and six times greater, respectively.
Yet because individualism and meritocratic ideals are so deeply ingrained in them, Americans are much less troubled by such differences than Europeans. According to a 1990 study, Americans are more likely to believe that there should be "greater incentives for individual effort," rather than that "incomes should be made more equal." Proportionately fewer Americans (56 percent) agree that "income differences are too large," as compared with Europeans (whose positive responses range from 66 to 86 percent). In a survey reported in 1995, people in six countries were asked: "How would you prefer to be paid--on a fixed salary . . . or mostly on an incentive basis which will allow you to earn more if you accomplished a lot, but may result in less earnings if you don't accomplish enough?" A majority of Americans (53 percent) opted for the incentive plan; the survey's British, French, Spanish, and German respondents chose a fixed salary by margins ranging from 65 to 72 percent.
A 1996 survey shows that a policy that reduces income disparities is supported by less than one-third (28 percent) of Americans, while positive responses elsewhere range from 42 percent in Austria to 82 percent in Italy. The British fall in the middle at 63 percent.
Americans are more likely than Europeans to agree that "large income differences are needed for the country's prosperity." Nearly one-third of Americans surveyed in 1987 justify inequality this way, as compared with an average of 23 percent among seven European countries (Great Britain, Austria, West Germany, Italy, Hungary, Switzerland, and the Netherlands). A 1992 review of American public opinion data over 50 years reports: "Surveys since the 1930s have shown that the explicit idea of income redistributing elicits very limited enthusiasm among the American public. . . . Redistributive fervor was not much apparent even in [the] depression era. Most Americans appear content with the distributional effects of private markets."
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