June 3, 2003

Views of a Changing World 2003

Chapter 6. Social and Economic Values

Free-market economies and the individual freedoms that underlie them are highly favored around the world. Majorities in 33 of 44 countries surveyed by the Pew Global Attitudes Project believe that people are better off in a free-market economy, even if it leads to disparities in wealth and income. But this global endorsement of capitalism goes hand-in-hand with equally broad support for a government safety net. The need for active government efforts to help the poor is endorsed throughout the world – with the United States a notable exception. Americans also are more likely than people in almost any other nation surveyed to feel that the key to personal success or failure is within each individual‘s control.

Other social issues, more than economics, divide the world‘s people. In Western Europe and Canada, and to a lesser extent in the U.S., the prevailing view is that homosexuality should be accepted by society. But even larger majorities in Africa, much of the Middle East and Asia are opposed to societal acceptance of homosexuality. In some African countries – notably Kenya and Senegal – that opposition is virtually unanimous.

Global opinion is split, along roughly similar geographic lines, over the linkage between belief in God and morality. The consensus in Europe is that it is not necessary for a person to believe in God to be moral and have good values. In every other country where this question was asked – including the United States – majorities say that belief in God is a prerequisite for morality.

In Praise of Free Markets

As might be expected, there is extensive support for free markets among people living in advanced economies. Fully seven-in-ten in the U.S. (72%), Italy (71%) and Germany (69%) agree that people are better off in free markets, and support is only somewhat less in Great Britain (66%), France (61%) and Canada (61%). Japan, where the economy has been struggling for years, is a notable exception. Only about four-in-ten Japanese (43%) think people are better off in free markets, while a majority (55%) disagrees.

Levels of support for free markets are even higher in several still-developing African countries, particularly Nigeria (80%) and Ivory Coast (79%). In fact, support for free-market economic systems is greatest overall in high-income countries surveyed (66% on average), and in those with the lowest income (63%) – perhaps based on experience in the former case and hopeful expectation in the latter.

Support for free markets is significantly weaker in several middle-income countries, many of which are struggling to make capitalism work. Opinion on this issue varies widely among countries classified by The World Bank as “low middle-income” and “upper middle-income.” But, on average, only a narrow majority (54%) in the middle-income countries surveyed agrees that people are better off in free markets.

In Argentina, which is facing a severe economic crisis, only about a quarter of respondents (26%) feel that people are better off in free markets. There is notable lack of support for free markets in three transitional economies in Eastern Europe – Russia (45%), Poland (44%) and Bulgaria (31%).

On the other hand, some middle-income Eastern European populations show surprising support for free markets, with Ukraine (64%) and the Czech Republic (62%) on par with Canada and France. Similarly in China, where a different version of the question was asked about the country‘s increasingly free-market economy, seven-in-ten agreed with the statement “most people have a better life now, even though some are rich and some are poor.”

Still a Need for a Safety Net

Along with widespread acceptance of free markets, people around the world perceive the need for a social safety net and believe the government has a responsibility to care for the poor. But significant differences emerge when people are asked to weigh the relative importance of a government guarantee of aid for the poor against the freedom to pursue individual goals without government interference.

Majorities in every European country, as well as Canada, believe it is more important for government to ensure that no one is in need than it is for individuals to be free to pursue goals without government interference. This view is prevalent in former Soviet countries – notably Russia (74%), Ukraine (76%) and the Slovak Republic (70%). Support for activist government efforts to aid the poor is nearly as strong in Italy (71%), France (62%) and Great Britain (62%).

But Americans – alone among the populations of wealthy nations – care more about personal freedom than about government assurances of an economic safety net. Near six-in-ten (58%) value the freedom to pursue individual goals without government interference, while barely a third (34%) say it is more important for the government to take an activist approach to guaranteeing that no one is in need.

Other nations where large majorities favor personal freedom over a government guarantee of aid for the poor include Venezuela (68%), Honduras (68%), Guatemala (61%), Ghana (63%), Nigeria (61%) and Pakistan (61%). In all these nations, as is shown here, significant majorities also say their governments are usually inefficient or overly controlling, assessments that may affect views on the value of a government safety net.

Tepid Support for Safety Net in U.S.

Support for a social safety net is relatively weak in the U.S., even when there is no potential cost in government interference with personal liberty. Asked simply if government has a responsibility to care for the poor, 73% of Americans agree, but that is a smaller percentage than in any other country except Jordan (61%) and Japan (65%).

Differences over this issue are even more apparent in the intensity of opinion. Just three-in-ten Americans (29%) completely agree that government has a responsibility to help the poor. In 37 of the 42 other countries where this question was asked, at least four-in-ten completely agree that government has the responsibility to help the needy. In much of Eastern Europe, as well as Great Britain, fully twice as many people completely subscribe to this opinion as compared with the U.S.

Over the past 12 years, there has been a sea change in opinion in several Eastern European countries – especially Russia and the Ukraine – on the relative importance of personal freedom and government guarantees of aid for the poor. In 1991, just a third of Russians rated a government obligation to help the poor as a greater priority than personal freedom. That percentage has more than doubled over the past 12 years to 74% currently. The change has been nearly as dramatic in Ukraine, where 76% now view a government guarantee to help the poor as more important (compared with 37% in 1991).

In Western Europe, the trend in general attitudes toward government aid for the poor differs. It has been far less dramatic and it has gone in the other direction. There has been a noticeable decline in several European countries in the percentage completely agreeing it is the government‘s responsibility to help the poor. Even so, this view is much more widely held in Europe than it is in the United States.

Resistance to Shutting Inefficient Factories

People around the world express broad support, in principle, for free markets. But there is far more public resistance to implementing such specific policies as closing large, inefficient factories if that entails substantial personal costs.

Majorities in most countries where the question was asked say that large, inefficient enterprises should not be allowed to close because it would cause too much hardship on people. Only in a handful of countries – notably Vietnam, the Czech Republic and Tanzania – do most people believe such factories or enterprises should be closed, even if hardships result.

The contrast between principle and reality is most apparent in Guatemala, where 61% favor a free market but 70% say closing inefficient factories is too great a hardship. Similarly in India, 53% favor free markets but closing inefficient factories. Opinion is roughly similar in Turkey, where 52% favor free markets but 70% oppose closing inefficient factories.

Success: Out of One’s Control

North Americans feel a much greater sense of personal empowerment than do people in the rest of the world. Strong majorities in the United States (65%) and Canada (63%) reject the idea that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.” Outside of North America, only in Japan does a majority (52%) disagree with the idea that success lies with forces outside individual control.

Throughout the rest of the world, most people feel that success for the most part lies out of their personal control. This opinion is dominant across a diverse group of countries – including Turkey (76%), South Korea (75%), Mali (71%) and Germany (68%).

In Europe, majorities in every country – except Great Britain and the Czech and Slovak Republics – believe that forces outside of an individual‘s personal control determine success. Even in those countries, opinion is divided, with nearly half in each saying success is not within an individual‘s control (49% Slovak Republic, 48% Great Britain, 47% Czech Republic).

The percentage of Americans who believe that success is determined by forces outside their control has fallen modestly since 1988–from 41% to 32%. Elsewhere there has been little change in recent years, with a few exceptions. A growing number of Germans feel success is outside of their control – 68% agree with that statement now compared with 59% in 1991. More important, the number completely agreeing has nearly doubled, from 12% to 23%, over the same period.

In Bulgaria, by comparison, there has been a decline since 1991 in the percentage of the public saying that success lies beyond an individual‘s personal control (from 73% to 54%). And the number who completely agree that outside forces determine individual success has tumbled from 41% to 12%.

Failure: Not Society’s Fault

There is more international agreement on the idea that individuals – not society – are to blame for failure. Not surprisingly, Americans are among the most likely to cite the individual, rather than society. By more than six-to-one, Americans say that people who do not succeed do so because of their failures, not society’s.

That view is shared across a wide range of countries. Opinion in Indonesia is even more on the side of individual accountability than in the U.S.: Fully 87% of Indonesians hold individuals responsible for their failures, compared with 11% who blame society. Similarly, strong majorities in the Czech Republic (82%), Uzbekistan (79%), Honduras (77%), Guatemala (76%), Mexico (76%), Great Britain (75%) and Germany (74%) believe that failure can be blamed on individual shortcomings.

Still, this view is not universally shared. In Poland, a 55% majority blames failure on society – not the individual – and substantial minorities in Ukraine (48%), Bulgaria (47%) and Russia (38%) agree. In Africa as well, respondents also are less likely to blame failure on individual shortcomings than on society, and opinion is evenly divided on this point in Argentina, Brazil and Turkey.

Government: Inefficient And Controlling, But…

People have complex and somewhat contradictory feelings about their own governments. There is a widespread sense that government is inefficient, and majorities in many countries – including Western Europe and the U.S. – feel that government is too controlling.

At the same time, people generally view their governments as being run for the benefit of all the people. At least half of respondents in 34 of 42 countries in which this question was asked agree that government is generally run for the benefit of everyone.

In effect, people take a compartmentalized view of government. Americans are typical in this regard: Fully six-in-ten say government is inefficient (63%) and overly controlling (60%), but most (65%) also agree with the statement that the government “is run for the benefit of all the people.” Just a third of Americans (34%) disagree with that statement.

This view of government is shared in several other nations as well. Like Americans, the British view their government as inefficient and excessively controlling (54%, 66% respectively). But two-thirds also say the government is run for the benefit of all the people. People in Canada, Honduras, Lebanon, Turkey and many other countries – including several in Africa – take a similar view of their governments.

This perspective, though, is not universal. Respondents in Argentina and Japan are highly critical of their governments for inefficiency and for not operating for the benefit of all citizens. Just 17% of Argentines and 26% of Japanese say their governments operate for everyone‘s benefit. But respondents in these countries do not believe their governments are too controlling; only about four-in-ten in each hold that view (42% in Japan, 41% in Argentina).

Populations in Africa, the Middle East/Conflict Area and some Asian nations are notable for the very positive assessments they give to their governments‘ fairness. Overwhelming majorities in most of these countries say their governments are run for the benefit of all, most notably in Bangladesh (93%), Egypt (90%), Uganda (86%), Ghana (85%), Uzbekistan (85%) and the Philippines (84%). Even in Turkey, where most see too much control and inefficiency by the government, nearly eight-in-ten (79%) say it is being run for everyone‘s benefit.

In Eastern Europe, where current conditions contrast sharply with the state control of the communist era, relatively few people view their governments as too controlling. In Poland, just 28% say that, and only about a third in Russia (34%) and Bulgaria (36%) agree. There are significant differences among Eastern Europeans, however, over their governments‘ efforts at fairness. Just a third (32%) of Ukrainians say their government is run to everyone‘s benefit – the lowest percentage of any nation in the region. Poland is at the other end of the spectrum: nearly nine-in-ten Poles (88%) believe the government is fair to everyone.

For the most part, attitudes toward government in the U.S. and Europe have not changed dramatically since the fall of communism. But there are some major exceptions, especially in opinion on whether government is run to the benefit of everyone. In Poland and Germany, the percentage holding that favorable view of their governments has more than doubled since 1991 – from 31% to 88% in Poland, and from 41% to 86% in Germany. And in Russia, half see the government as benefiting everyone, compared with 26% in 1991.

Over the same period, there has been a significant increase in the number of Germans who also see their government as too controlling – from 38% in 1991 to 60% in the current survey. As is the case with German views on government‘s fairness, the change has occurred about equally among residents of former East Germany and former West Germany. In Russia, by comparison, the trend has gone in the reverse direction. Fewer people say the government is overly controlling now than did so in 1991 (34% now, 49% then).

Environment vs. Growth

There is fairly wide agreement among people in advanced economies that environmental protection should be a priority, even if it means slower economic growth. But there are notable gaps in the strength of this opinion, with respondents in France and the U.S. less enthusiastic about making that tradeoff.

Fully eight-in-ten in Canada, Italy, Great Britain and former West Germany say protecting the environment is worth the cost in jobs and slower growth. Roughly seven-in-ten in Japan, the U.S. and former East Germany agree. About four-in-ten in Canada and Italy (42%, 40%), completely agree that environmental protection is worth the cost, and at least a third in Japan (37%) Great Britain (36%) and Germany (34%) completely agree.

Smaller percentages, in the U.S. and France particularly, completely agree that environmental protection is worth the loss of jobs and economic growth (25% in each country). In addition, overall opposition to that idea is higher in France (33%), in former East Germany (30%) and the U.S. (26%).

More Tolerance in U.S., Canada

Americans express significantly more tolerance toward ethnic minorities than do Europeans. The U.S. public has an overwhelmingly positive view of the country‘s two largest ethnic minorities – African-Americans and Hispanics. Nearly eight-in-ten (78%) say blacks have a good influence on the country, while two-thirds (67%) have a similarly positive view of Hispanics.

In Canada, there also is a high level of tolerance for the leading minority group, ethnic French. Fully three-quarters of Canadians say the French have had a positive influence on Canada. Western Europeans, by contrast, have a much more negative opinion of the ethnic minorities in their countries.

Fully eight-in-ten Italians say ethnic Albanians have had a bad influence on Italy – and nearly half (48%) say their influence has been very bad. In France, about half of respondents (51%) believe North Africans have a bad influence on France, while 43% say they have a positive influence. Germans are somewhat more positive in assessing the influence of ethnic Turks (47% positive, 41% negative). The British take a relatively favorable view of blacks and Asians in their country: 63% say their influence is good, while 26% say it is bad.

A separate survey last fall underscores the negative impression many in Europe have of ethnic minorities and foreigners more generally. Asked specifically whether it is a good or bad thing that people from “the Middle East and North Africa” were living and working in their country, majorities in Germany (59%) and France (53%) say it is a bad thing. In Great Britain, opinion is divided – 53% feel it is a positive development, while 40% disagree. (This question was only asked in Great Britain, Germany and France.)

Roughly half of respondents in Germany and France (53%, 50%) also take a negative view of Eastern Europeans living and working in their country. The British are somewhat more positive about Eastern Europeans – 53% say their presence in Great Britain is a good thing, while 41% see it as bad.

Majorities in all three countries believe it is good that people from other European Union countries are living and working in their country. Six-in-ten in France and Great Britain (64%, 63%) view fellow Europeans in positive terms, but Germans are more divided (54% good thing, 39% bad).

Most Favor Both Spouses Working

The increasing role of women in the workplace is supported in most of the 44 countries surveyed. Throughout Europe, North America, Asia and Africa, majorities believe that the more satisfying way of life is for both spouses to hold jobs and share in household and child care duties.

In Western Europe, this opinion is dominant, particularly in France. In France, 86% favor both spouses working, while just 13% think the preferred model for marriage is when the husband alone supports the family. The idea of both spouses working is less popular in parts of Eastern Europe and the United States. A majority of Russians (56%) favor both spouses working, but more than four-in-ten (42%) disagree. Opinion in the United States is similarly divided; 58% support both spouses working and 37% disagree.

There are major differences in attitudes on this question among predominantly Muslim countries. Egypt, Pakistan and Jordan are the only countries surveyed in which majorities favor the traditional marital division of duties. This is consistent with the relatively low level of support among Muslims in Jordan and Pakistan for women working outside the home. Of Muslims, just 14% in Jordan and a third in Pakistan completely agree that women should be able to work outside the home; this question was not permitted in Egypt. (See Chapter 2 – Muslim Opinion on Government and Social Issues.)

Other Muslim countries broadly accept the idea of both spouses holding jobs. In Turkey, Lebanon and Uzbekistan, solid majorities believe the husband and wife should work and share child care responsibilities. That also is the case in Senegal, Mali and Nigeria, the African countries surveyed with large Muslim populations.

Birth Control Mostly Popular

Birth control is widely viewed as one of the positive aspects of modern life. Majorities in 34 of the 44 countries surveyed say birth control and family planning have changed things for the better. In particular, birth control is broadly supported in the world‘s most populous countries. Roughly nine-in-ten Indians (87%) and eight-in-ten Chinese (77%) say birth control has changed things for the better.

By contrast, people in countries where the population is growing slowly (if at all) take a more negative view of birth control. In Japan, where the government did not allow sale of birth control pills until four years ago, just 32% say birth control has changed life for the better and nearly as many (29%) say it has made things worse. In Ukraine and Bulgaria, pluralities (44%, 39%) believe birth control has made things worse. Only four-in-ten Italians (41%) say birth control has improved life, while 30% say it has made things worse.

For the most part, men and women take a similar view of birth control. But in several countries, women are notably more upbeat about birth control than are men. Two-thirds of Canadian women (68%) say birth control has improved life, but only about half of Canadian men (51%) agree. And in France, 66% of women say birth control has improved things, compared with 52% of men.

Global Divide on Homosexuality…

The question of homosexuality highlights a stark global divide over social values. In five African countries, more than nine-in-ten believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Opinion is a bit less lopsided, but still highly negative toward homosexuality, elsewhere in Africa and throughout the Middle East/Conflict Area.

Western Europeans, by nearly as large margins, take the opposite view. More than seven-in-ten respondents in Germany (83%), France (77%), Great Britain (74%) and Italy (72%) think that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Opinion in Canada (69%) closely mirrors that of Western Europe.

American opinion is split on this issue. A bare majority of Americans (51%) believe homosexuality should be accepted, while 42% disagree. In this regard, American attitudes have less in common with Western Europe or Canada than with Latin America, where opinion also is largely divided.

…And Morality

Americans and Europeans differ over foreign policy and other issues, but those disagreements pale in comparison to the transatlantic gulf over religion and morality. While 58% of Americans say that belief in God is a prerequisite to personal morality, just a third of Germans and even fewer Italians, British and French agree.

Attitudes toward religion and morality also divide Americans from publics in Eastern Europe. Along with the French, Czech respondents are most likely to reject linkage between religion and morality (85%-13%). Smaller but substantial majorities in Russia (72%), Poland (60%), Bulgaria (59%) and the Slovak Republic (53%) also say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral. Ukraine is the only country of the ten European nations surveyed in which a majority (61%) dissents from that view.

Opinion on God and morality in the U.S. is far closer to that expressed in some Latin American countries surveyed (Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina) than it is to Europe. This pattern is similar to findings on the personal importance of religion, which were released in December 2002. The United States is the only wealthy country in which a majority said religion was very important to them personally. (U.S. Stands Alone in Its Embrace of Religion, Dec. 19, 2002).

Age and Social Values

Just as young people are more comfortable than their elders with the pace of modern life, the two groups also hold very different views on social and religious issues. In many countries, there is a significant generation gap over homosexuality, the role of women in the workplace, and God and morality.

These differences are most pronounced on the question of whether society should accept homosexuality. In Japan, more than three-quarters of those under age 30 favor societal acceptance of homosexuality (77%); just a quarter of those age 65 and older agree (24%). In Poland, the differences are even starker. Six-in-ten Poles under age 30 believe society should accept homosexuality. The number holding that view declines among older age groups, to just 9% of those 65 and older.

Age differences also influence opinion on whether both spouses should work. Poles under the age of 30 overwhelmingly favor both spouses working (82%-18%); those age 65 and older prefer the traditional marriage (62% favor just the husband working). In the U.S., those under age 30 favor both spouses working by three-to-one (73%-24%), while older people are much more divided (53% favor just the husband working, 42% prefer both spouses work).

In most countries, age is less of a factor in attitudes toward God and morality. In the United States, majorities in every age category say belief in God is a prerequisite for morality, though younger Americans are somewhat less likely to express this opinion than those age 65 and older (53% vs. 68%). In Canada and Western Europe, majorities in every age group hold the opposite view, though in these countries as well, younger respondents are more likely than older people to say that belief in God is not a prerequisite for morality.

But opinion in Poland on God and morality is sharply divided along generational lines. Nearly seven-in-ten of those under age 30 (68%) say it is not necessary to believe in God to be moral, while 31% disagree. Among Poles age 65 and older, those numbers are practically reversed: 64% think belief in God is necessary for morality, compared with 34% who do not. (The question on homosexuality was not asked in China, Egypt and Tanzania; the question on God and morality was not asked in China, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Vietnam.)

Cite this publication: “Views of a Changing World 2003.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 3, 2003) http://www.pewglobal.org/2003/06/03/views-of-a-changing-world-2003/, accessed on July 22, 2014.