Skip to main content Accessibility help

National Identity and Support for the Welfare State

  • Richard Johnston (a1), Keith Banting (a2), Will Kymlicka (a2) and Stuart Soroka (a3)


Abstract. This paper examines the role of national identity in sustaining public support for the welfare state. Liberal nationalist theorists argue that social justice will always be easier to achieve in states with strong national identities, which, they contend, can both mitigate opposition to redistribution among high-income earners and reduce any corroding effects of ethnic diversity resulting from immigration. We test these propositions with Canadian data from the Equality, Security and Community survey. We conclude that national identity does increase support for the welfare state among the affluent majority of Canadians and that it helps to protect the welfare state from toxic effects of cultural suspicion. However, we also find that identity plays a narrower role than existing theories of liberal nationalism suggest and that the mechanisms through which it works are different. This leads us to suggest an alternative theory of the relationship between national identity and the welfare state, one that suggests that the relationship is highly contingent, reflecting distinctive features of the history and national narratives of each country. National identity may not have any general tendency to strengthen support for redistribution, but it may do so for those aspects of the welfare state seen as having played a particularly important role in building the nation or in enabling it to overcome particular challenges or crises.

Résumé. Cet article examine le rôle de l'identité nationale en matière d'appui populaire à l'État-providence. Les théoriciens du nationalisme libéral soutiennent que la justice sociale sera toujours plus facile à réaliser dans les États ayant une forte identité nationale, laquelle, selon eux, peut à la fois atténuer l'opposition à la redistribution chez les personnes à revenu élevé et réduire les effets corrosifs de la diversité ethnique engendrée par l'immigration. Nous évaluons ces propositions à la lumière des données canadiennes de l'Étude sur l'égalité, la sécurité et la communauté. Nous concluons que l'identité nationale augmente effectivement l'appui envers l'État-providence parmi les Canadiens fortunés de la majorité, et qu'elle aide à protéger l'État-providence contre les effets toxiques de la suspicion culturelle. Cependant, nous constatons également que l'identité joue un rôle plus restreint que ne le suggèrent les théories existantes du nationalisme libéral et que ses mécanismes de fonctionnement sont différents. Cela nous amène à proposer une autre théorie de la relation entre l'identité nationale et l'État-providence, une théorie selon laquelle cette relation est fortement contingente et reflète les caractéristiques propres de l'histoire et de la tradition nationale de chaque pays. L'identité nationale n'a peut-être, en soi, aucune tendance générale à renforcer l'appui à la redistribution, mais elle peut le faire pour les aspects de l'État-providence considérés comme ayant joué un rôle particulièrement important dans l'édification de la nation, ou lui ayant permis de surmonter des crises ou des défis particuliers.


Corresponding author

Richard Johnston, University of British Columbia, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, C425-1866 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1. Email:
Keith Banting, School of Policy Studies, Queen's University, 138 Union Street, Room 217, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6. Email:
Will Kymlicka, Department of Philosophy, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario K7L 3N6. Email:
Stuart Soroka, Department of Political Science, McGill University, 855 Sherbrooke St West, Montreal, Quebec H3A 2T7. Email:


Hide All
Abizadeh, Arash. 2002. “Does Liberal Democracy Presuppose a Cultural Nation? Four Arguments.” American Political Science Review 96: 495509.
Alesina, Alberto, Baqir, Reza and Easterly, William. 2001. “Public goods and ethnic divisions.” NBER Working Paper no. 6009. Cambridge MA: NBER.
Alesina, Alberto and Glaeser, Edward. 2004. Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Banting, Keith and Kymlicka, Will, eds. 2006. Do Multiculturalism Policies Erode the Welfare State? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Barry, Brian. 1991. Democracy and Power: Essays in Political Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Béland, Daniel and Lecours, André. 2008. Nationalism and Social Policy: The Politics of Territorial Solidarity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Canovan, Margaret. 1994. Nationhood and Political Theory. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Citrin, Jack and Green, Donald Philip. 1990. “The Self-Interest Motive in American Public Opinion.” In Research in Micropolitics, ed. Long, Samuel, 3. Greenwich CN: JAI Press.
Citrin, Jack, Wong, Cara and Duff, Brian. 2001. “The Meaning of American National Identity.” In Social Identity, Intergroup Conflict, and Conflict Reduction, ed. Ashmore, Richard D., Jussin, Lee and Wilder, David. New York: Oxford University Press.
Corneo, Giacomo and Gruner, Hans Peter. 2002. “Individual preferences for political redistribution.” Journal of Public Economics 83: 83107.
Crepaz, Markus. 2008. Trust beyond Borders: Immigration, the Welfare State and Identity in Modern Societies. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Cusack, Thomas, Iversen, Torben and Rehm, Philipp. 2006. “Risks at work: The demand and supply sides of government redistribution.” Oxford Review of Economic Policy 22: 365–89.
De Figureido, Rui J.P. Jr. and Elkins, Zachary. 2003. “Are Patriots Bigots? An Inquiry into the Vices of In-Group Pride.” American Journal of Political Science 47: 171–88.
Easterly, William. 2001a. “Can Institutions Resolve Ethnic Conflict?Economic Development and Cultural Change 49: 687706.
Easterly, William. 2001b. The Elusive Quest for Economic Development: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.
Easterly, William and Levine, Ross. 1997. “Africa's Growth Tragedy: Politics and Ethnic Divisions.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 112: 1203–50.
Esping-Andersen, Gosta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Fearon, James. 2003. “Ethnic and Cultural Diversity by Country.” Journal of Economic Growth 8: 195222.
Fong, Christina. 2001. “Social preferences, self-interest, and the demand for redistribution.” Journal of Public Economics 82: 225–46.
Gilens, Martin. 1999. Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goodhart, David. 2004. “Too Diverse?Prospect (February): 3037.
Hicks, Alexander. 1999. Social Democracy and Welfare Capitalism: A Century of Income Security Policies. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press.
Huber, Evelyne and Stephens, John. 2001. Development and Crisis of the Welfare State: Parties and Policies in Global Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Iversen, Torben and Soskice, David. 2001. “An asset theory of social policy preferences.” American Political Science Review 95: 875–93.
James, Estelle. 1987. “The public/private division of responsibility for education in international comparison.” Economics of Education Review 6: 114.
James, Estelle. 1993. “Why do different countries chose a different public/private mix of education services?Journal of Human Resources 28: 531–92.
Kernerman, Gerald. 2005. Multicultural Nationalism: Civilizing Difference, Constituting Community. Vancouver BC: UBC Press.
Korpi, Walter. 1983. The Democratic Class Struggle. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
La Ferrara, Eliana. 2002. “Self-Help Groups and Income Generation in the Informal Settlements of Nairobi.” Journal of African Economics 11: 6189.
La Ferrara, Eliana. 2003. “Ethnicity and Reciprocity: A Model of Credit Transactions in Ghana.” American Economic Review 93: 1730–51.
Linos, Katerina and West, Martin. 2003. “Self-interest, social beliefs, and attitudes to the redistribution.” European Sociological Review 19: 393409.
Luttmer, Erzo. 2001. “Group Loyalty and the Taste for Redistribution.” Journal of Political Economy 10: 500–28.
Martinez-Herrera, Eric. 2004. “Liberal-Nationalist Theory, Political Confidence and Support for the Welfare State: Evidence from Britain.” San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute, Department of Political and Social Sciences, EUI Working Paper SPS No. 2004/8.
Mau, Steffen and Burkardt, Christoph. 2009. “Migration and welfare state solidarity in Western Europe.” Journal of European Social Policy 19: 213–29.
Mayda, Anna Maria. 2006. “Who is Against Immigration? A Cross-Country Investigation of Individual Attitudes toward Immigrants.” Review of Economics and Statistics 88: 510–30.
Meltzer, Allan H. and Richard, Scott F.. 1981. “A Rational Theory of the Size of Government.” Journal of Political Economy 89: 914–27.
Miller, David. 1995. On Nationality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Miller, David. 1998. “The Left, the Nation–State and European Citizenship.” Dissent (Summer): 4751.
Miller, David. 2006. “Multiculturalism and the Welfare State: Theoretical Reflections.” In Multiculturalism and the Welfare State: Recognition and Redistribution in Contemporary Democracies, ed. Banting, Keith and Kymlicka, Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nettle, D. 2000. “Linguistic Fragmentation and the Wealth of Nations.” Economic Development and Cultural Change 49: 335–48.
OECD. 2008. Growing Unequal? Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries. Paris: OECD.
Quadagno, Jill. 1988. The Transformation of Old Age Security: Class Politics in the American Welfare State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Reich, Robert 1991. The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism. New York: Random House.
Romer, Thomas. 1975. “Individual Welfare, Majority Voting and the Properties of a Linear Income Tax.” Journal of Public Economic 14: 163–85.
Rorty, Richard. 1999. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
Shayo, Moses. 2009. “A Model of Social Identity with an Application to Political Economy: Nation, Class and Redistribution.” American Political Science Review 103: 147–74.
Sides, John and Citrin, Jack. 2007. “European Opinion about Immigration: The Role of Identities, Interests and Information.” British Journal of Political Science 37: 477505.
Skocpol, Theda. 1991. “Targeting Within Universalism: Politically Viable Policies to Combat Poverty in the United States.” In The Urban Underclass, ed. Jencks, Christopher and Peterson, Paul. Washington DC: Brookings.
Sniderman, Paul M. and Hagendorn, Louk. 2007. When Ways of Life Collide: Multiculturalism and its Discontents in the Netherlands. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Soroka, Stuart N., Helliwell, John F. and Johnston, Richard. 2007. “Measuring and Modelling Interpersonal Trust.” In Social Capital, Diversity, and the Welfare State, ed. Kay, Fiona and Johnston, Richard. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Soroka, Stuart N., Johnston, Richard and Banting, Keith. 2007a. “Ethnicity, Trust, and the Welfare State,” In Social Capital, Diversity, and the Welfare State, ed. Kay, Fiona and Johnston, Richard. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Soroka, Stuart N., Johnston, Richard and Banting, Keith. 2007b. “The Ties that Bind: Social Diversity and Cohesion in Canada.” In Belonging? Diversity, Recognition and Shared Citizenship in Canada, ed. Banting, Keith, Courchene, Thomas and Seidle, Leslie. Montreal: Institute for Research on Public Policy.
Soysal, Yasemin. 1994. Limits of Citizenship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Stephens, John. 1979. The Transition from Capitalism to Socialism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Svallors, Stefan. 1997. “Worlds of Welfare and Attitudes to Redistribution: A Comparison of Eight Western Nations.” European Sociological Review 13: 283304.
Svallors, Stefan. 2003. “Welfare Regimes and Welfare Opinions: A Comparison of Eight Western Countries.” Social Indicators Research 64: 495520.
Swank, Duane. 2002. Global Capital, Political Institutions and Policy Change in Developed Welfare States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Tamir, Yael 1993. Liberal Nationalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Taylor-Gooby, Peter. 2005. “Is the Future American? Or, Can Left Politics Preserve European Welfare States from Erosion through Growing ‘Racial’ Diversity?Journal of Social Policy 34: 661–72.
Uberoi, Varun. 2008. “Do Policies of Multiculturalism Change National Identities?Political Quarterly 79: 404–17.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

National Identity and Support for the Welfare State

  • Richard Johnston (a1), Keith Banting (a2), Will Kymlicka (a2) and Stuart Soroka (a3)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.