Multiculturalism and Welfare

Multiculturalism and Welfare

The past thirty years have witnessed a dramatic change in the way Western democracies deal with ethnic minorities. In the past, ethnic diversity was often seen as a threat to political stability, and minorities were subject to a range of policies intended to assimilate or marginalize them. Today, many Western democracies have adopted a more accommodating approach. This is reflected in the widespread adoption of multiculturalist policies for immigrant groups, the acceptance of territorial autonomy and language rights for national minorities, and the recognition of land claims and self-government rights for indigenous peoples.

We will refer to all policies of this kind as “multiculturalist policies.” They go beyond the protection of the basic civil and political rights guaranteed to all individuals in a liberal-democratic state to extend some level of public recognition to ethnocultural minorities and some level of support for the maintenance of their identities and practices.

The adoption of these policies has been controversial, for two reasons. The first is a philosophical critique, which argues that they are inherently inconsistent with basic liberal-democratic principles. Since the mid-1990s, however, this philosophical debate has been supplemented by a second argument: namely, that they make it more difficult to sustain a robust welfare state. Critics worry that such policies erode the interpersonal trust, social solidarity, and political coalitions that sustain strong redistributive policies. This claim is central to recent critiques of multiculturalism by Brian Barry, Todd Gitlin, Alan Wolfe, Jyette Klausen, and others.Brian Berry, Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism (Polity, 2001); Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars (Metropolitan, 1995); Alan Wolfe and Jyette Klausen, “Other Peoples,” Prospect (Dec. 2000), pp. 28-33

Our goal is to test this second critique. Because the complaint is an empirical one, our method is also an empirical one. Using cross-national data, we aim to test whether countries adopting robust multiculturalist policies have fared worse on various measures of welfare provision than those countries that have fewer or no such policies.

It is important to emphasize that our focus is on multiculturalist policies. The word “multicultural” is sometimes used in a purely demographic sense to refer to high levels of ethnic or racial diversity. A society is “multicultural” in this sense if it contains sizeable ethnic or racial minorities, regardless of how the state responds to this diversity. Some people believe that ethnic diversity as such makes it more difficult to build or sustain a robust welfare state, whether or not the state actively accommodates this diversity. Countries that are more racially homogenous, or that admit few immigrants, are s...


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