When comparing quality of life conditions between advanced Western capitalist nations and individual states within the U.S., a growing amount of data shows that those which are the most extremely conservative and religious are very often the most violent and plagued with far greater social problems in more than a dozen categories like overall crime, economic mobility, infant mortality, overall poverty, environmental abuse, teen pregnancy, incarceration, life expectancy, poor educational systems, foreign aid percentage through public funds, murder, healthcare efficiency, business opportunities, childhood poverty, average worker to CEO pay ratio, paid maternity leave, gun violence, obesity, income inequality and minimal worker’s benefits. Extreme liberalism, such as with revolutionary communism, also seriously detracts from quality of life. This ideology has had a very weak following around the world since the late 20th century. Extreme social and economic conservatism, in contrast, have been increasingly popular among a large segment of the American population during the past three decades.
Contrary to the repeated slogans of asserted “self-evident truths” within my very conservative upbringing, I’ve discovered that the economic, historical and sociological data reveal that the best answer is a moderate combination of conservatism, liberalism and libertarianism. See in the statistics below sizable evidence of poor performance from the extreme conservatism that has taken over the United States since the early 1980s, in contrast to moderate Republican policies like those of Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. The party has gone so far to the right that even Reagan couldn’t get elected today, and he was considerably less liberal than the last three presidents in the GOP. The damage that extreme liberalism inevitably brings isn’t the political challenge facing us today because the world has been moving increasingly further away from it since at least the late 20th century. What contemporary Republicans consider to be liberal in the typical 21st Democrat is moderate by global standards and was basically normative for both parties in the United States during 1950-70s. For example, the policies and values of the pro-business Conservative Party in Britain, arguably the least liberal major political group in Western Europe, is much like our Democratic Party.
Extreme conservatism significantly drives much of American political and economic life today and America strongly influences much of the world. Among the moods and philosophies of this movement are the long-term effects of a Cold War anti-communism that inaccurately portrayed socialism as the local boogieman or even communism-in-disguise. Socialism became a dirty word. Several generations of mainstream Americans have considered socialism inherently destined to fail in any context, yet today every nation in the world maintains in widely varying degrees an economic system of integrated socialism and capitalism. This includes the five remaining communist countries originally and deeply influenced by Russia, a society that has made many adjustments in recent decades so capitalism might continue to grow: Vietnam, China, Laos, Cuba and North Korea. The fact that the United States and Britain (often the most conservative and religious European country) rank so badly regarding social ills ought to inspire self-reflection in the face of the empty American proverbs proclaiming that socialism and secularism are automatic and regular destroyers of life. One can easily point to a vast amount of destruction that capitalism has brought upon humanity and the ecosystem. But, if we critique capitalism honestly and comprehensively, a recognition of the many astounding and practical benefits that come from it will be necessarily admired. The dark sides of both systems can be largely kept in check if they are implemented in ways that require them to work together toward unleashing their strengths while simultaneously correcting for each other’s substantial limitations.
When I use the description “advanced Western capitalist nations”, I’m referring to these kinds of societies: Norway, France, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, Finland, Germany and Sweden. In comparison to the United States, these countries much more comfortably embrace the use of more liberal policies such as universal social programs and more systematic regulations to protect themselves and the environment from the common excesses, inherent instability and periodic destructiveness of capitalism, while harnessing its many positive qualities to produce innovation and prosperity.
Americans especially need to know and admit that socialism and capitalism work very well together. Each country will decide on a different specific format and ratio between the two elements (50/50, 70/30, 40/60, etc.), but citizens need not fear either big business or government – as long as both are integrated and regulated in effective and reasonable ways.
The same general observation of the inherent destructiveness of extremist beliefs can be discovered on the spectrum between types of secularism and religion (conservative and liberal). The developed nations and US states that are more secular and moderately liberal tend to have far lower levels of social ills. Why? Causation is always very difficult to pinpoint or prove in history and sociology, but robust (and especially interdisciplinary) correlative data found to encompass long periods of time in various scenarios and contexts are worth taking seriously. If the same basic philosophies and types of policies are dominant in separate societies that achieve very similar results over decades or even centuries, it likely means there is something closer to a true cause and effect relationship.
Consider the more than 100 links to statistics below. I have found these examples to be generally representative of the various data sources on each major subject. Many charts are included at the bottom of this article.
On the Quality of Life Index for 2010, the United States ranked 33rd overall, 39th in health, 24th in education, 17th in wealth, 15th in democracy, 77th in peace and 38th in environment.
Results from a 2016 study comparing nations on quality of life by U.S. News & World Report ranked us significantly higher, at 14th, better than most but still behind more than a dozen more liberal nations.
American states have been examined and contrasted in ways similar to how the United Nations does with a Human Development Index to find “a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators, which are used to rank countries into four tiers of human development”. As one analyst describes a study released in 2014 of this kind as being “conducted by Measure of America, a seven-year-old nonpartisan project of the Social Science Research Council, and Opportunity Nation, a nonprofit that promotes policies to expand social mobility — attempt to measure prosperity and opportunity in America today and over the past few decades.” The results generally followed the pattern that repeatedly appears in the paragraphs below – the more extremely conservative states correlate with a lower quality of life. “A Mississippian today lives about as long and earns about as much as the typical American in the late 1980s…The nation’s HDI score, Measure of America’s attempt to track well-being, has more than tripled since 1960 thanks to increases in life expectancy and access to better education and health care. Yet, as the map above shows, there’s wide variation by state….Connecticut led the nation, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland. The states lagging furthest behind are Alabama, Kentucky, West Virginia, Arkansas and Mississippi, where residents have life spans and earnings that the typical American had in the late 1980s. Mississippi’s HDI score is just three fifths that of Connecticut.”
A very large 2014 study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showed quality of life conditions are very much worse in the conservative Southern states. The 362 regions of the OECD’s 34 member nations were compared in categories of education, income, health, jobs, environment, access to broadband, civic engagement, housing and safety. The top 5 were revealed as New Hampshire (77.6), Minnesota (76.2), Vermont (74.8). Iowa (72.9) and North Dakota (72.4). And the bottom 5 turned out to be Mississippi (50.7), Arkansas (51.3), Alabama (51.3), West Virginia (52.2) and Tennessee (52.9).
When world crime rates from any year in the past few decades are examined, especially in contrast with other well developed countries, America stands in a deplorable condition. The trend is very high by percentage of population (2012-2015), showing a violence rate that surpasses all other advanced nations. Data from 2011 shows that with crime defined as “formal contact with the police and/or criminal justice system [which] may include persons suspected, or arrested or cautioned”, America ranks #1 (12.4 million) by a large margin over Germany (2.1 million), France (1.17 million), Russian Federation (1 million), Italy (900,000), Canada (600,000). As a general exercise , we can compare that to the absolute numbers in population size for the same year to see a crime pattern: America – 3.97%, Germany – 2.56%, France – 1.79%, Russian Federation – 0.69%, Italy – 1.51%, Canada – 1.74%.
FBI data shows the U.S. crime rate has followed the overall global trend in declining violence, such as how it’s fallen by half since the early 1990s. Yet the conservative states have been consistently been less safe and decidedly so.
Research on global murder rates by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime pulled from various 2008-2012 statistics and found that the U.S. ranked as the 98th safest out of 218 nations. The rate is 3.8. Consider that nations with much less technological sophistication, educational opportunities, economic power and other advances of modernity such as Indonesia (0.6), Algeria (0.7), Sri Lanka (3.4), Iran (3.9), Nepal (2.9), Bangladesh (2.7), Libya (1.7), Chile (3.1), Taiwan (3.0), Jordan (2..0) and Bahrain (0.5) are safer to live in. The rates of homicide in other advanced Western societies such as Canada (1.6), Australia (1.1), Italy (0.9), New Zealand (0.9), Japan (0.3), Israel (1.8) and Germany (0.8) are virtually all much less than half that of the United States.
Murder by firearm rates are far higher in America than all other developed nations – note that gun ownership rates are significantly higher here.
Healthcare efficiency in America was ranked 48th in 2008, 46th in 2012, 44th in 2014 and 50th in 2015 through studies by Bloomberg. It’s been a long term problem, as evidenced by our 38th position in a comparison study by the World Health Organization in 2000. The Huffington Post remarked about the 2012 numbers, “It’s remarkable how low America places in health care efficiency: among the 48 countries included in the Bloomberg study, the U.S. ranks 46th, outpacing just Serbia and Brazil. Once that sinks in, try this one on for size: the U.S. ranks worse than China, Algeria, and Iran.” Even though our system is the most expensive, a 2013 study by well-respected private healthcare policy organization, the Commonwealth Fund, rated the United States last overall out of 11 total industrialized nations evaluated in categories of “health system quality, efficiency, access to care, equity, and healthy lives”. PBS remarked, “At 17.6% of GDP in 2010, US health spending is one and a half as much as any other country, and nearly twice the OECD average.” And per capita, “US spends two-and-a-half times the OECD average.” Still, we drastically lag behind the healthcare efficiency level of approximately 1/4th of the societies on Earth, including all other advanced Western capitalist nations.
America’s incarceration rate is the 2nd highest in the world out of 223 countries.
Foreign aid given as a percentage of the national budget is thought to be as high as 28% in the minds of many Americans surveyed and it’s often proposed that this is due to the elements of generosity intrinsic to our conservatism or traditional religious values. Actually, the amount hovers around 0.18%, globally ranking near 20th year after year, far behind more liberal and secular nations like Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Netherlands which spend 4-5 times as much. In measures of private charity, America tends to do very well, though much of that is to local churches and other local groups, not foreign aid. Forbes examined this and found many nuances that don’t always support the claim of American leadership even in the area of private donations, especially since more liberal nations expect to express their charity through taxpayer provided public services more so than individual giving. Another relevant factor is that income inequality is generally much more prevalent in the United States than other advanced nations.
Teen pregnancy rates are far higher in Republican states.
Teen pregnancy rates are far higher in America than at least twenty other Western countries.
Infant mortality rates are far higher in America than most other industrialized countries. The CIA World Factbook shows we had the 167th highest rate of infant mortality for 2015, out of 224 countries. Our advanced Western peer nations had lower rates.
Obesity rates are far higher in America than all other industrialized countries. Research published in 2011 showed that “over one-third of children in the US are overweight or obese”, around 35%, while the OECD average was less than one-fourth, at about 22%. Data compiled in 2012 demonstrated that the national rate for all ages had climbed from 23% in 1990 to 31% in 2000 to 36% in 2010 – an all time high.
Obesity rates are generally much higher in Republican states.
Guaranteed paid maternity leave is not legally mandated in the US, in contrast to every other developed nation.
Income inequality is much worse in America than other industrialized nations. In 2011, one analyst noted: “A new study from the Congressional Budget Office, for example, found that income of the top 1 percent of households increased by 275 percent in the 30-year period ending in 2007. American households at the bottom and in the middle, meanwhile, saw income growth of just 18 to 40 percent over the same period.”
Income inequality is proportionally higher in more religious countries. A major academic study of 137 countries in 2011 conducted “a multilevel analysis of countries around the world over two decades and a time-series analysis of the United States over a half-century”. The findings were that “economic inequality has a strong positive effect on the religiosity of all members of a society regardless of income”. The researchers concluded that the results “support relative power theory, which maintains that greater inequality yields more religiosity by increasing the degree to which wealthy people are attracted to religion and have the power to shape the attitudes and beliefs of those with fewer means”. Another investigation that same year of those nations discovered that secularity is correlated with “greater existential security, including income security (income equality and redistribution via welfare states) and improved health”. Reviews by Christianity Today of much related academic research found the same trend.
Poverty rates by nation show the United States in a truly lamentable position among the world’s richest nations, 19th in 2010. This is especially unfortunate given that we are by far the wealthiest country in GDP. We ranked at the very bottom, under 22 OECD countries, in a study that examined data covering the late 2000s. Statistics regarding senior citizens from the mid-2000s situate America 18th out of 20 and in 2015 the rate (21.5) was more than 10 times that of the Netherlands (2.0), greater than 5 times as much as France (3.8) and about 3 times the financial destitution that had occurred in Canada (6.7), Spain (6.8), Greece (6.9) and Ireland (6.9).
Poverty rates for most of the 10 most troubled states in this category tend to be much more conservative states. Between 2005 and 2011, high poverty rates spread from their starting position in the central Southern states to reach far beyond that in correlation with the aftereffects of the 2007-2008 financial collapse. When looking at 1990-2010 combined and averaged, it’s clear that conservative states in general are more likely to be stuck in greater poverty.
Childhood poverty is typically and substantially more common in America than its peer nations. UNICEF data from the mid-1990s shows the United States trailing after the other 14 advanced nations compared, more than half of which have between 2 to 7 times lower levels of impoverishment. Later research illustrated the problem continuing, from the late-1990s (UNICEF) placing us 14th out of 15 nations studied and the mid-2000s (OECD) including a 28th position out of 30. We were found to be last out of 26 compared in 2009 and 28th of 31 in 2011. One commentator explained about a 2014 UNICEF report: “Nearly one third of U.S. children live in households with an income below 60 percent of the national median income in 2008 – about $31,000 annually. In the richest nation in the world, one in three kids live in poverty….With 32.2 percent of children living below this line, the U.S. ranks 36th out of the 41 wealthy countries included in the UNICEF report. By contrast, only 5.3 percent of Norwegian kids currently meet this definition of poverty.”
Childhood poverty is at its highest among conservative states. Relevant statistics demonstrated this pattern in 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013. In 2009, as an example, the poverty line for a family of two adults and two children was defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as $21,756 in annual income.
Child well-being measurements are quite low in America and the more conservative states when contrasted against their counterparts. This includes health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviors and risks, material well-being and subjective well-being.
Life expectancy is lower in Republican states.
The number of paid vacation days and paid holidays are much lower in America than other advanced societies.
Secular societies can function quite well.
A book highlighting success in societies with a secular foundation.
America is often not even close to being the best country for business. For example, when Forbes evaluated which countries were best for business in 2015, Denmark was #1. This was followed by New Zealand, Norway, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Canada. By a large measure, they obviously do not agree with Tea Party policies of extreme libertarianism, yet no conservative country is near the top of this “pro-business” list. The United States ranks #22. U.S. News & World Report conducted a similar research project in 2016 to find the most “market-oriented countries [that] are a haven for capitalists and corporations”, in which we scored #23 – behind those same types of more liberal advanced Western capitalist societies.
One analysis by a writer for Business Insider and The Atlantic explains the Nordic countries’ very high success in business and quality of life this way:
“Nordic countries are well-ranked when it comes to helping facilitate starting a business. At the most basic level, what the Nordic approach does is reduce the risk of starting a company, since basic services such as education and health care are covered for regardless of the fledgling company’s fate….[If] the entrepreneur succeeds, they are rewarded by tax rates on capital gains that are lower than the rate on wages.”
The link in the quote above references data from the World Bank Group on 189 countries, in which America fares better overall than in the Forbes study just mentioned. Among the top ten performing nations under the criteria for “Ease of Doing Business”, it ranks #7. Noticeably, the United States lags far behind other advanced societies in performance measurements on “Starting a Business” – #49, “Getting Electricity” – #33 and “Trading Across Borders” – #34. See chart:
The author is a Finnish immigrant and in that article explores many differences in quality of life between America and Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway). He lays out many points that contradict popular criticisms often proposed to disqualify this comparison:
“This is what Americans fail to understand: My taxes in Finland were used to pay for top-notch services for me.”
“Nordic countries are the way they are, I’m told, because they are small, homogeneous ‘nanny states’ where everyone looks alike, thinks alike, and belongs to a big extended family….This, in turn, makes Nordic citizens willing to sacrifice their own interests to help their neighbors. Americans don’t feel a similar kinship with other Americans, I’m told, and thus will never sacrifice their own interests for the common good. What this is mostly taken to mean is that Americans will never, ever agree to pay higher taxes to provide universal social services, as the Nordics do. Thus Bernie Sanders, and anyone else in the U.S. who brings up Nordic countries as an example for America, is living in la-la land….But this vision of homogenous, altruistic Nordic lands is mostly a fantasy. The choices Nordic countries have made have little to do with altruism or kinship. Rather, Nordic people have made their decisions out of self-interest. Nordic nations offer their citizens—all of their citizens, but especially the middle class—high-quality services that save people a lot of money, time, and trouble.”
“Nordics are not only just as selfish as everyone else on this earth but they can—and do—dislike many of their fellow citizens just as much as people with different political views dislike each other in other countries….The reason Nordics stick with the system is because they can see that on the whole, they come out ahead—not just as a group, but as individuals.”
“As for homogeneity, Sweden [and Norway] already has a bigger share of foreign-born residents than the U.S.”
Further than that, several other advanced Western nations contain larger percentages of immigrant populations than the United States and yet consistently have a better quality of life: New Zealand, Ireland, Australia, Canada, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Israel and Austria. Regularly healthier nations that have similar immigrant rates to America include: Germany, Iceland, Netherlands and the United Kingdom. See below:
The chart above is from the Global Study on Homicide 2013, conducted by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.