How Nations Vary

A few weeks ago I asked some basic questions about great divide stories, and last week I asked what are the key divides in politics.  Now let me review key data relevant to these questions: the main political factors dividing nations.  The most recent edition (out of four) of the World Value Survey asked 92,000 people in 62 nations 250 key value questions. The results:

Two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance. … The Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not. … Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values, and reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook.

The second major dimension of … brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values. The unprecedented wealth … means that an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. Thus, priorities have shifted from an overwhelming emphasis on economic and physical security toward an increasing emphasis on subjective well-being, self-expression and quality of life.

But wealth is better correlated with a simple sum of these two factors. Last November I complained:

We need not accept their labels. … Factor analysis strongly suggests the most informative subspaces to consider, but says less about the best axes to consider. … It seems pretty clear that differing wealth is a key factor driving values differences. Given that one factor is the lower left to upper right wealth factor, the other factor is an upper left to lower right factor, stretching from [East] Russia to the [West] USA. But what is the essence of that factor? … [Perhaps] an “inward” vs. “outward” focus … when the priority is making families and personal relations work well … [vs.] when the priority is larger community health and threats. … [Western] cultures where invasion was less an issue tended to evolve family oriented values, while … [Eastern others] focused more on larger community solidarity.

Judge for yourself.   I encourage readers to ponder the following patterns, to see what sense they can make of them. Here are official WVS diagrams, showing key values, then nations, in their two-factor space, but relabeled with RICH, POOR, WEST, EAST poles:


Here are some of some issue-direction associations, in text form:

Rich: divorce OK, trust people, homosexual ok, imagination, responsibility.
Poor: respect parents, good & evil clear, respect authority, trust science, jobs to own nationality.
East: interested in politics, discuss politics, politics important.
West: family important, in good health.
East Rich: abortion ok, achievement motivation, determination, thrift, discuss/interest politics.
East Poor: reject outgroups, woman needs children, not happy, child needs both parents, technology, money, hard work, state/employee management, state responsible.
West Poor: religion important, god important, religious faith, national pride, obedience, work important, want many kids.
West Rich: affect balance, life satisfaction, friends important, leisure important, have free choice, good health, ecology, women’s movement, ecology, tolerance.

As far as I know these dimensions are a somewhat recent phenomena; it isn’t clear that they account well for political disputes from many centuries ago.  Also, I think that over the last few decades the positions of nations in this space has drifted somewhat steadily toward the rich pole, as nations have gotten richer.  Notice that there seems to be more East-West variation among poor than rich nations.  Notice also that the most “East” nations are not actually the furthest East, but the most toward the center of the Asian continent, where invasions were most common.

An ’09 factor analysis of nations finds two similar factors, wealth and “Western values and institutions,” and a third equator-vs-pole factor that captures poverty caused by tropic-diseases:

Three principal factors emerge from the analysis, explaining together 61.8 % of the total variance of the indicators. The first of these is strongly correlated with indicators reflecting R&D, patenting & scientific publications, ICT access/use, a well developed financial sector, little corruption, law and order, …  openness of society towards parts of population with diverging characteristics, trust and the propensity to take part in civic activities. …  Hence this factor reflects both technological and social capabilities as traditionally defined, emphasizing the strong interdependence between technological, social and cultural factors in the process of development. …

The second factor correlates highly with the adoption of western-type institutions in the political sphere, a high share of Catholics, a low share of Muslims and moderately with women’s rights. This factor clearly reflects the prevalence of Western values and institutions and we therefore call it “Western democracy”. Finally there is a third factor that correlates strongly with the fertility rate, spread of malaria, tuberculosis and HIV and location in the tropics. … We label this factor “the poverty trap”.

We might also add in nation size as a fourth key nation, as emphazised by Scott Sumner:

This [good governance] list also highlights the “small is beautiful” point I keep making.  The top six countries all have fewer people than Los Angeles County.  I’m guessing they don’t spend $550 million dollars on new high schools (as LA just did.)  The Economist noted that America is spending $11 billion on its census ($36 per person) whereas Finland spends a measly $1.2 million (20 cents per person.)

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  • OhioStater

    Hirsch and Veblen basically argue economic growth is not beneficial, and this is another data point proving their assertions. Economic growth leads to wealth (at least in elites) which leads to cultural and moral decline, at least among those with wealth.

    It seems the only point of economic growth is the geopolitical great game, such that the US Treasury has enough resources to outspend Russia and China militarily.

    Also is important we buy big cars to drive up the price of gas because if we didn’t the price of oil would be low making it easier for China use that same oil to develop its economy and military.

  • Phil Goetz

    I happened to be looking at the CIA Factbook’s median age statistics recently. A low median age correlates highly with birth rate, death rate, poverty, traditionalism, and Survivalism. Birth rate may be a good causal factor. I sorted the median age for all the countries in the diagram. In increasing order:

    15-25: Uganda, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Pakistan, Jordan, Philippines, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Egypt, South Africa

    25-31.9: Dominican Republic, Venezuela, India, Iran, Peru, Morocco, Mexico, Algeria, Vietnam, Colombia, Indonesia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Israel, Albania, Argentina, Chile, Armenia

    [Sharp transition occurs from 32 to 35]

    33.7-40: Uruguay, Ireland, Moldova, Iceland, Macedonia, United States, Puerto Rico, New Zealand, Montenegro, Slovakia, Australia, Poland, Romania, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Ukraine, France, Lithuania, Norway, United Kingdom, Hungary

    40.1-45: Spain, Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Latvia, Czech Republic, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, Serbia, Croatia, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Sweden, Belgium, Slovenia, Greece, Finland, Austria, Italy, Germany

    • vozworth

      so, I had a short conversation with my CPA, my takeaway…

      you seem to lead a very European lifestyle.

  • Phil Goetz

    > I’m guessing they don’t spend $550 million dollars on new high schools (as LA just did.)

    Here in Fairfax County, just before the stock market crash, we spent over $100 million dollars on renovating West Springfield high school.

  • arch1

    Very interesting.
    1) I wish that I could have easily found a description of the analysis approach at the referenced site. That said,
    2) I’m tentatively astounded at the ease with which a simple (the 7 colored regions), fairly natural, and largely-non-gerrymandered bucketing can be imposed on the country plot
    3) FWIW, if I had been presented with the country chart minus axis labels and minus the U.S. data point, my gut feel would have placed U.S. higher than did the actual factor analysis (e.g. my sense is that U.S. values are significantly closer to Sweden’s overall than to Turkey’s or Iran’s).

  • arch1

    Can’t resist two afterthoughts-
    1) In one sense it’s unfortunate that the plot is so geographically coherent: as a result it’s tougher than it might be to travel far in value-space without also traveling far physically. Best try: A combined Russia/Sweden trip is a no-brainer, and for a U.S. resident El Salvador looks pretty good, too. I suppose I’d pick Morocco to round it out.
    2) What’s the deal with Greece?

  • TGGP

    As noted in the comments at Sumner’s, we should expect the variance among small countries to be larger.

  • Evan

    OhioStater, where are you getting this idea that wealth leads to moral decline, look at some of the traits from the poor category, listed together:

    “jobs to own nationality, reject outgroups, woman needs children, not happy, state responsible,religious faith, national pride, obedience.” Note also that “homosexual ok” is listed in the rich values, but not the poor ones.

    It looks to me like being poor has a tendency to make people evil. Or (more likely) people are evil by default, but wealth improves their moral character. This makes sense, if you’re rich you feel secure, so devote less resources to survival and more to Hansonian altruistic signaling. And one of the best ways to signal is to reach out to the “other.” I think this is the reasons modern people are significantly less evil than their ancestors.

    Of course, Hansonian altruistic signaling can also lead to voting for statist policies, so I guess it’s a mixed bag in that respect.

  • Matt

    With this graph, I would think it would be important to note that placing centrally on the vertical axis is likely due to lack of ideological interest in either pole, rather than due to conflicting but strongly felt interest in some elements of both poles. This is possibly the case for the horizontal axis, but I have a hard time believing anyone has any disinterest the vectors this represents.

    I also am surprised that there is a strong correlation between elements on the secular-rational side and the placing of Japan, Russia and China on these factors. “Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values, and reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. “ This doesn’t seem to be consistent with anecdotal evidence. Japan, China and Russia value deference to authority, are anti-nationalistic, value parent-child ties and reject suicide more than nations like the US?

    • pdf23ds

      I don’t know about China or Russia, but that seems an apt description of Japan. It does have a high suicide rate, but that doesn’t mean suicide is more accepted over there–AFAIK it’s not.

      • Matt

        Sorry, I meant to say “Japan, China and Russia oppose deference to authority, are anti-nationalistic, don’t value parent-child ties and reject suicide more than nations like the US?”. Assuming that you responded to the nonsense I actually said rather than what to I actually meant to say.

  • biplob mandal

    What about topography, weather, temprature. It changes ways of surviving the circumstances, hence philosophies of life, hence all those characteristics written above.

    Personal observation shows huge inclination towards the effect of Natural Habitat or people’s thinking–comparable only to external threats of invasion.

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  • jhertzli

    Maybe the East–West axis should be called the “Continent–Island” axis.