Why does the United States lack a social safety net? Blame the Pilgrims

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In 1534, King Henry VIII wanted a divorce. Because the Pope wouldn’t grant him one, Henry decided to leave the Catholic Church and create the Church of England. It became mandatory to worship at the Church of England, which was essentially Catholicism 2.0: Just pretend the King is the Pope!

King Henry VIII (public domain via Flickr)

The invention of the printing press allowed the English to read the Bible in their native language, making the difference between the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic church and the actual teachings of the Bible all too clear.

The church, in splitting from the Catholic Church, hadn’t gone far enough in its mission to return to the Biblical values of thrift, hard work, and temperance⁠. Cue another split.

In 1608, a separatist group of religious refugees left England for Holland, where they were granted asylum. After 10 years, a sizeable fraction of them decided that they found the Dutch culture to be too secular and socialist. They feared that spending any more time there would corrupt their kids, who were learning the language. While in exile, these zealous Calvinists⁠—dismissively given the title “Puritans” for their close reading of the Bible — began plotting their escape to the New World to create a Christian utopia, a “redemptive community of God’s chosen people”¹⁠ free from the corruption of spices and the modern world.

In 1620, my brazen and litigious great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Edward Doty stepped off the Mayflower with over 100 of his fellow passengers and crew members, creating the second oldest colony of English settlers in North America. This decentralized group of land owners, artisans, subsistence farmers, and their servants settled in the Cape Cod harbor of Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Doty and his shipmates were extremely conservative religious migrants, zealous Calvinists who migrated to New England to severe ties with England and start a Christian Utopia. They sought a very specific freedom of religion: the freedom to not be ruled by a government that would interfere with their interpretation of the Bible.

What else was the plentiful harvest that awaited them, if not proof that they had arrived at their Savior’s Promised land? (It was, in fact, bountiful due to the sustainable forestry practices that indigenous people had been practicing for generations.) They stayed and multiplied, and by 1640, there were at least twice as many Puritans as original colonists in Jamestown, making their views the dominant ones in the New World.

To repeat: the United States was founded by a fringe group to the religious and cultural right of the rest of Europe, who had crossed an ocean for the specific purposes of building a Christian Utopia that adhered to their reading of the Bible.

According to their reading of the Bible, God helped those who helped themselves. Having a Protestant work ethic was actually written into the law in Massachusetts in 1648, which stated that no person shall “spend his time idlely or unprofittably under pain of such punishment as the Court of Assistants or County Court shall think meet to inflict.”⁠²


WHAT THE UNITED STATES HAS INSTEAD OF A SOCIAL SAFETY NET

There was no need for a social safety net: there was God. You’d be able to provide for your family, provided you worked for it. “Underpinning this formula for success was… the belief that a benevolent God operating in a universe of reason and law would reward virtue with worldly success.”⁠³

Believing that we are masters of our own destiny is embedded in the cultural DNA of the United States: if you didn’t get what you wanted, you either didn’t work hard enough for it, you didn’t deserve it, or it wasn’t meant to be yours.

The social norm of a Puritan work ethic was an enormous boon to this country’s widespread belief in equal opportunities, as well as its aversion to providing help to those in need. If we believe that we all have the opportunity to move up by our own hard work — and are exposed to occasional evidence of social mobility — we can continue to look down on the concept of income redistribution.

And why shouldn’t they believe that? They’d crossed an ocean and found lots of food, just waiting for them. My ancestors wiped Native Americans out of their natural habitat, invading North America like a giant predator. Given an ecological advantage, evasive species can take over; with humans, belief systems can dominate and invade, just as easily.

FOUNDER EFFECTS

In 1954, evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr developed the idea of founder effects to explain how differences within species can appear and persist. Whenever a small group breaks off from a larger one, its unique differences end up getting amplified throughout future generations. In a classic example, 15 Brits settled in Tristan da Cunha, an isolated island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; just one of them carried a gene for retinitis pigmentosa. Today, the island’s inhabitants (ancestors of its original settlers) are 10 times more likely to have retinitis pigmentosa than the general population.

Groups of humans excel at working together, picking up social cues and following orders: ingredients that allow for the speedy transmission of knowledge and group living. Underneath our ease of being socially influenced lies the fear of isolation, and being abandoned by our tribe, which runs at the heart of what transforms subjective evaluations into objective reality. The influence of others actually changes our brain’s working definition of what’s rewarding.

Instinctively knowing how we’re supposed to act keeps us all on the same page. It’s so easy for us to pick up these social cues, so easy for us to get into the habit of doing what others are doing, that whoever sets up the organization sets the stage for things to come. When examining the development of managerial styles at firms, sociologists noted “Once formulated and articulated, a founder’s organizational blueprint likely “locks in” the adoption of particular structures, as well as certain premises that guide decision-making.”⁴⁠

IT’S ALL ABOUT LUCK

The narrative of the Self-Made Man requires an unwavering conviction that outcomes in life are the direct result of our actions, not dumb luck. It festered in the United States for centuries—unsullied by European norms, separated by oceans—because it’s a self-regenerating meme. If hard work is your religion and money is your reward, then the justification for not striking it rich is impossible to prove: you simply haven’t worked hard enough. If God is just and gives people what they deserve, then anything else counts as a “hand out” that would only zap motivation.

The virtues of hard work and denying the role of luck in life is, as far as cultural beliefs go, a super-replicator on par with “having children makes you happy and is the best possible thing you can do!” Simply put, people who don’t believe that having children will make them happy tend not to have children, and their belief ends up dying with them.

Believing that people get what they deserve — with no room for chance, luck, or randomness — makes it easier to stomach income inequality. Randomness exists, but is so existentially terrifying that we’ll create any kind of order to stay sane. Believing that we get what we deserve makes it easier to justify whatever we get, and makes us subconsciously assume that disadvantaged groups are inferior.

Compared to other countries and cultures, people in the United States downplay the role of luck, despite the fact that this country was founded by conservative Christians like my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on little more than dumb luck.

[1]: Jack P. Greene. The Intellectual Construction of America: Exceptionalism and Identity from 1492 to 1800. (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina, 1993): 55.

[2]: The Laws and Liberties of Massachusetts, Reprinted from the Copy of the 1648 Edition in the Henry G. Huntington Library (1929). Quote taken from Lawrence Meir Friedman. A History of American Law, Second Edition. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1985): 81.

[3]: Karen Halttunen. Confidence Men and Painted Women. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1982): 201–202.

[4]: J.N. Baron, M.T. Hannan, and M.D. Burton. “Building the Iron Cage: Determinants of Managerial Intensity in the Early Years of Organizations.” American Sociological Review 64 (1999): 527–548. Quoted in Teresa Nelson. “The Persistence of Founder Influence: Management, Ownership, and Performance Effects at Initial Public Offering.” Strategic Management Journal 24, no. 8 (2003): 707–724.