June 23, 2005

Paris Is Burning!

So I intend to blog about Curtis Cate's new Nietzsche biography without ever discussing either a) Nietzsche himself or b) any of his ideas. With that out of the way, here's yet another extraneous passage from the book:
By this time [i.e. May 1871], Fritz was seriously upset by the bloody turmoil in Paris, where a band of revolutionary "patriots," outraged by Adolfe Thiers's and his bourgeois government's meek acceptance of Bismarck's peace terms, had occupied the city hall and many other public buildings. The Communards... had chosen this inopportune moment to establish a new proletarian regime... It seemed, from newspaper reports reaching Basel, as though all of Paris was on fire... and now came news that the Louvre, with its priceless library and art collections, was ablaze... The news left Nietzsche absolutely shattered.
Well, who wouldn't be shattered? Watching the poor rise up and torch the Louvre is a scary experience! Interestingly, though, here in the United States we've never really had these sorts of class-related riots and rebellions, that is, the sort that threaten the actual seat of government. Sure, there were all sorts of violent outbursts by the working classes in the 19th century, and again in the 1930s and 1960s, but never anything that threatened Washington D.C. in the way that Paris was upended multiple times over the past three centuries, or even in the way London was threatened in the 1880s.

But so what? Well, some economists have argued that widespread social unrest tends to lead to increased income redistribution and greater democratization, that the latter are responses to the former. But presumably you need the right sort of social unrest. The scary sort. And one of the things that helps foster truly scary rioting is urban density. Indeed, according to this paper, across OECD countries "there is a significant positive effect of density on redistribution: 38.6 percent." So one theory might be that America, thanks to its lower population density, was able to avoid the sort of nation-threatening riots that helps bring about the expansion of the welfare state.

Of course, the alternate explanation, as given by the second paper linked there, is that greater density increases empathy for the poor—a person is more likely to support a larger welfare state if he or she lives near, say, the slums; in America, it's easier to get away from the poor than it is in Europe—which in turn increases support for income redistribution. Another possible explanation is that our "open frontier" somehow made lots of people in America feel like rugged individuals and thus less likely to support the nanny state than were their French counterparts. Another explanation is that this is all bunk and there are an infinite number of reasons why the U.S. never developed a European-style welfare state. But that's no fun. And who knows, maybe it really was because we never had the, um, Nietzsche-esque fear of the proletarian put into us.
-- Brad Plumer 3:02 AM || ||