Goodbye to rugged American individualism?

By Bernd Debusmann
February 18, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Shock!! Horror!! The United States is becoming more like Europe! The rugged individualism that makes up part of the country’s self-image may be doomed. Paternalism threatens to throttle enterprise and initiative.

That has been the reaction of Republican leaders to the $787 billion stimulus package President Barack Obama signed this week after a contentious debate that echoed arguments made more than 80 years ago on the eve of the Great Depression.

“We were challenged with the choice of the American system of rugged individualism or the choice of a European system of diametrically opposed doctrines – doctrines of paternalism and state socialism,” Herbert Hoover said in his closing campaign speech for the 1928 presidential elections he won comfortably. The European ideas, he said, undermined the initiative and enterprise that propelled Americans to “unparalleled greatness.”

Fast forward to February 2009 and listen to an updated version of conservative philosophy, expressed by Mitch McConnell, the Senate’s minority leader: “This (stimulus package) paints a picture of the Europeanization of America … and if we take all these measures, we will have made a dramatic move in the direction of turning America into Western Europe.”

Why is this such a dreadful prospect? After all, the United States does not fare particularly well on international comparisons of quality of life. It ranks 15th on the United Nation’s annual Human Development Index which measures such things as life expectancy and standard of living. A similar index compiled a few years ago by the Economist Intelligence Unit and using different factors put the United States in 13th place.

In both surveys, some of the European countries routinely derided as “nanny states” by conservative ideologues scored comfortably ahead of the United States.

Still, conservative talk show hosts dubbed the stimulus bill the European Socialist Act of 2009 – not meant as a compliment — and Newsweek magazine followed up the theme with a cover that carried the headline We Are All Socialists Now and noted inside that “Barack Obama sounds more like the president of France every day.”

It warned that slow economic growth in the United States, which has historically grown faster than Europe, “could kill rugged American individualism.”

Which begs the question to what extent rugged individualism can flourish in a deep recession.

IN RECESSION, SAFETY NETS LOOK GOOD

In January alone, almost 600,000 Americans lost their jobs, the biggest monthly drop in 34 years. Over the past year, job cuts totaled 3.6 million. This year alone, 2.4 million people are expected to lose their homes, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, a consumer advocacy group which tracks foreclosures. In the next four years, that figure is estimated to climb to 8 million.

More than 44 million Americans lack health insurance, the highest number in any industrialized country, and another 38 million are under-insured.

In these bleak surroundings, European-style social safety nets look attractive even to rugged individualists, particularly those affected by the downturn. Even before the present crisis, polls showed growing support for government programs to help those in need. A 2007 Pew survey, for example, showed 69 percent supporting the notion that government should take care of people who can’t care for themselves.

Unfettered capitalism this is not. In the Internet debate prompted by Republican warnings of the impending Europeanization of America, one commentator asked: “Does this mean that the half million Americans losing their jobs each month can count on having health care, public transportation, quality education and a public safety net?”

That depends on whether and how fast the stimulus package takes effect and allows Obama to translate promises into actions. Health care reform is high on his list, as are plans to overhaul America’s creaking transportation infrastructure, make college education more affordable, and provide a safety net for the poor and the unemployed.

Call it Europeanization or a 21st century version of the 1930s New Deal designed to end the Great Depression (economists still argue over whether it did or not), it is a sharp turn from the conservative philosophy that government is the problem and can’t be the solution. That was the basic plank of the “Reagan revolution” of small government, low taxes, de-regulation and a belief that the markets know best.

Numbers confirm that the United States is coming closer to Europe: In the late 1990s, U.S. government spending amounted to around 34 percent of gross domestic product, compared with 48 percent in Europe, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. By next year, stimulus spending is expected to bring the U.S. figure to around 40 percent and 47 percent in Europe. The gap is shrinking.

But in comparisons between America and Europe in an age of economic crisis, one element is conspicuously absent: social unrest. Greece, France, Bulgaria and Iceland have been shaken by riots, mass protests and strikes. No sign of that in the United States – yet.

Are rugged individualists less prone to protests and riots? Or is it just a matter of time?

– You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com. For previous columns, click here. –

157 comments

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I have had “State” sponsored medicare all my life (I’m in my 60′s) and have two grown children. Everything about our medical care has been covered by “The State” by way of my income taxes and I have NO complaints. I was raised on a farm in some poverty in the early fifties but I am well to do now by way of my lifetime of work as an educator and my husbands lifetime of work and paying our own way. In addition both of our children have college degrees and are well employed and have complete medical service coverage.

We live in Saskatchewan the ‘Birthplace’ of MEDICARE and I suggest that the ill educated right wing “Rugged Individuals” who are posting comments in here (that are frankly grossly ignorant) do a bit of research. MEDICARE works and does not cost more than what Americans are paying – it costs less!

The secret of MEDICARES success is that it is universal in coverage and is supported by compulsory income taxation – better to pay taxes for health than for many other foolish things.

I defy any nay sayer in here to challenge my assertaions about medicare in Saskatchewan – come here and observe and learn!

PS: Poster IaintBacchus says it like it si … he is a Marine and a man who understands why there is need for a return to “The Social Compact” in America.

Posted by Elisabeth W. | Report as abusive

I have had “State” sponsored medicare all my life (I’m in my 60′s) and have two grown children. Everything about our medical care has been covered by “The State” by way of my income taxes and I have NO complaints. I was raised on a farm in some poverty in the early fifties but I am well to do now by way of my lifetime of work as an educator and my husbands lifetime of work and paying our own way. In addition both of our children have college degrees and are well employed and have complete medical service coverage.

We live in Saskatchewan the ‘Birthplace’ of MEDICARE and I suggest that the ill educated right wing “Rugged Individuals” who are posting comments in here (that are frankly grossly ignorant) do a bit of research. MEDICARE works and does not cost more than what Americans are paying – it costs less!

The secret of MEDICARES success is that it is universal in coverage and is supported by compulsory income taxation – better to pay taxes for health than for many other foolish things.

I defy any naysayer in here to challenge my assertions about medicare in Saskatchewan – come here and observe and learn!

PS: Poster IaintBacchus says it like it is … he is a Marine and a man who understands why there is need for a return to “The Social Compact” in America.

Posted by Elisabeth W. | Report as abusive

It is simply a fact that in most western European countries people live in cities were the well-being of each individual is emphasized, modern infrastructure is maintained, culture is valued, and everyone is given a chance for a dignified life in comfort and security. Modern healthcare is accessible to everyone, without the notion of a 2nd class citizen that just didn\’t work hard enough to deserve their basic human needs covered. With less extreme polarization in salaries, even the lower pay scale allows for a respectful life, families to be raised with fewer worries, and many dreams fulfilled. In short, Europe is were the American Dream is lived.

Posted by Eurodream | Report as abusive

Medicare or Government health care, whatever you want to call it is always second rate. If you disagree, explain why the U.S. had MRI machines in every city with a population above 50K for years while the country of Canada had one machine. Socialism never works for the people.

Posted by South Dakota | Report as abusive

It makes me laugh all the comments I hear from U.S Republicans about European socialism. When have they ever lived in any off these ‘European countries’ they talk about? When have they analyzed in depth the differences between the macro-economic policies of such countries? I heard the other day a guy on Fox News claiming that if universal healthcare was introduced in the U.S (as it is in the UK) he would have to wait for hours to be seen by a doctor and could not choose his doctor. This is just fallacious. In the UK (as anyone who has bothered to make even a cursory examination of the healthcare system in the UK would know – i.e. not the guy on Fox News) one still has the option of seeking private healthcare in the UK and most people who get healthcare through their employer do just that every day of the year. And you can choose whomever you want to treat you. The problem of the American right is simply ignorance and a great example of the rule that in the U.S if you shout long enough and hard enough then your views will prevail, no matter how wrong or dangerous those views. It is a great fraud by the American-right being perpetrated on the average working American. You should call out these idiot right-wing commentators to confirm their ill-researched facts more, but I suppose as they only ever seem to interview each other then that would be difficult to do! Land of free speech? What a load of rubbish. I would move back to the UK in a heartbeat (were it not for the fact that my U.S-born wife wants to live here). The U.S has no soul. And no – for the record I am not some social-security-scrounging soap-avoider. I probably earn several times what the guy on Fox News does through my various businesses. I am a social-liberal and fiscal conservative. I just don’t like the idea of a country where if a car hits you the medics are looking through your wallet for your insurance card before they try to restart your heart!!! I would gladly give up my third range-rover and pay slightly higher taxes for universal healthcare so some poor chap would not be subjected to this inhumane treatment.

Posted by Rob | Report as abusive

We are not all “rugged individuals” nor do we aspire to be? But we don’t all trust government’s ability to avoid corruption and do what’s best for itself rather than for the system. We believe people in government too long, start “stealing” from us and we have much proof of that. And we don’t like what we see and hear about certain European countries: In France the power of the Unions frequently brings the country to a halt. and in the UK (a country I dearly love…it’s my family history, after all), it appears that there’s an even greater degradation of culture (than ours), an alarming and growing minority power, and a less than satisfactory health care system. I watch British TV and even the Brits joke about their health care. And with the Internet we can read about the various problems there, from shortages of MRIs to lack of good administration in many of the hospitals. America is many times bigger in both population and size, so whatever problems you face there, we are likely to face on a larger scale.

Posted by Jennifer | Report as abusive

My wife has relatives in the Netherlands-
I’ve been there 4 times in the last 16 years.
their health care is so bad that she doesn’t know how most of here family died recently, because of the system’s quality. My in-laws have had such bad health care over there that in the US they had most of the teeth pulled out and major orthodontia done so they can live normally.

that IS proof from current EUROPE that Gov’t run healthcare doesn’t work, nor the model we’re adopting here. anyone that runs a business (most libs and soc’s doen’t) are well aware that a big bureaucracy is never efficient.
And most of all-all proponents here are in dire need of a history lesson:
FDR made all the same mistakes the Barack hu’s-insane Obama and his Clintonites are making:
spending our way out of a crisis with debt, caused by spending in debting people with money for houses they can’t afford. It is a fact that unemployment went up more under the ‘New Deal’ and the depression worsened.
Wake up people, and learn the lessons. History is the great teacher. Stop panicking and think logically.

Posted by John thinking logical-not emotional | Report as abusive

Mr. Debusmann, you ask why Europeanization is such a bad thing and contend that the standard of living is higher in Europe citing statistics from the United Nation’s annual Human Development Index. I contend that the UN Index is not a true measurement of standard of living. It is instead a measure of only those attributes that the UN values. My spouse is an immigrant from Europe who left because of her perception that the standard of living in her native Italy was declining. She was escaping the European nanny state. I don’t believe she is alone. In fact, the USA supports more legal immigrants than any other nation in the world. Each year there are over 75,000 people that decide to leave Europe for the USA. (http://www.migrationpolicy.org/Factshee t_102904.pdf)

Is it not a higher standard of living that these people are seeking as they define it?

Josh

Posted by Josh | Report as abusive

Let me lay out some plain facts. My wife and I are productive individuals. We work 4 jobs between us. We own 2 businesses. Because of bureaucracy and taxes, at the end of this year, only I will be employed working 8-5 for a corporation. The businesses will be dissolved and we will not longer pay fees/taxes/licenses to govt or hire employees. (If people are not working, it is going to be hard to collect taxes!) I may be one of the first to opt out of the system, but experience has taught me I am never the last. There is no longer any incentive for us to work hard if we cannot keep what we earn or retain the autonomy to act in the client’s best interest. We can better use the time to produce things for ourselves that we now buy and earn income “on paper” rather than by actually doing some thing or producing some thing useful. Govt needs people like us much more than we need govt.

I understand that the state can steal and confiscate my money without my permission. Taking what does not belong to you is still stealing. (Thou shalt not steal. Any one remember hearing that? It does not say “except for govt”.) If it is mandated that every one will “participate” in the socialized health care program, I want to know how it will be done. Will they haul me in in handcuffs and truss me up or drug me to force me to submit to an annual medical exam? Or is it just my money they are after? This is not the kind of medical care I need or want, so why should I pay for it? I know what I am talking about because I have seen the legislation. The sheeple who believe they will get some thing for nothing do not understand that it will be controlled by special interests who intend to profit.

By the way, one of the businesses I will close is medical. The best and brightest have opportunities else where. They will evacuate first, leaving only workers who have no better opportunities.

We do not need more govt intrusion into every aspect of our lives. We need many of the programs and laws already in existence repealed.

I suuggest govt just leave people alone.
What a revolutionary concept!

Posted by Joe | Report as abusive

In Oregon there is a Baby at OHSU, that needs a heart transplant. The babies parents have insurance, but it won’t cover the Million++ price tags the Dr.s require to do the surgery and replace the heart. So the baby dies. This is happening everywhere, many many children are taken off the list, due to the economic statis of their parents. What i want to know is, will Medicare / Socialized Medical coverage end the needless death of our children. The system now rewards the insurance companies, including the Dr’s who are content with bankrupting hard working Americans. This issue is from bottom up, not top down. Obviously you that speak against medicare such as what Canada has, haven’t lost a precious baby or child, who other wise could have lived a productive life, if they recieved treatment.Show me a Insurance company who cares, there’s not one…Why do you think Lieberman hangs on the outside, he has been in the big Insurance companies pocket for years, right along with many Republicans. Look at ther voting records. I know in my heart, the young people who came out to vote get this. If they have anything to do with it, the old system will die, and a system that helps all, from the bottom up will come to light…the dross is floating to the top

I see “rugged individualism” every day on the highway as people cut me off, tailgate and try to keep me from merging. I see “rugged individualism” nearly everyday when I read about the latest homicides in the paper. “Rugged individualism” rears its head continually when I see all the people who just don’t care about anyone but themselves. I wave goodbye to American jobs offshored to maximize profits for our “Rugged individualists”. I’ve had just about enough of rugged individualism.

Posted by Nubo | Report as abusive

For me, the US is not becoming Europe FAST ENOUGH!

Posted by Skip | Report as abusive

In the end human nature will trump this discussion, everyone loves a politician handing stuff out. Why spend 800 bbn – why not $800 trillion? As the incentive for productive work declines in the US over the next decade because of this liberal debacle, so will invention, world safety and world creation of wealth. The Europeans have never been capable of protecting themselve, and when one of our ports is finally incenerated by one of the Gitmo releasees it will be a sad day. That, my commrades will trump the liberal whining for big Socialism. I won’t really feel that good saying “I told you so”.

Sadly, its likely we have created so much wealth, that our generation has lost sight of how it was done. The terrible ways of the past aren’t all bad. The 85% media that voted the Socialist in have both personal and professional reputations to protect. In short its like the Man made Global Warming hoax – its part of their religious identity. As for me, I’ll never spend another dime on a Reuters, AP, USA today, NYT, etal media product. That’s where I’m voting with my remaining dollars. And I mean never, checked out, NADA. Union “Journalists” will find a way to get a piece of bailout money that they are incapable of earning on their own. Capitalism is dead. Tax success, forget the fact that when big oil made $40 bbn that $10 bbn went into taxes/medicare/medicaid/roads/etal and Union and state pensions swelled. Thats true wealth creation. Liberals today tax acheivement as unfair. Payment for production and acheivement? Gone.

Have a good evening.

“Greece, France, Bulgaria and Iceland have been shaken by riots, mass protests and strikes. No sign of that in the United States – yet.

Are rugged individualists less prone to protests and riots?”

Those countries have trades unions, who look out for their members’ rights and wellbeing. America has steadfastly (and often violently) refused to allow unions a foothold, branding them communist, unpatriotic, unAmerican, etc. This is why I and many thousands of others could have our employment recently terminated with no explanation or recourse. If workers were allowed to mobilize and protest en masse, they might be listened to a little more. As it is, the people who make up the electorate in this country have no rights just now to a job, insurance, or even a roof over their heads.

Posted by montims | Report as abusive

This in response to the Eurpdreamers. I’ve lived in Germany half my life and your premise of a idillic perfect europe doesn’t exist. As far a health care goes, German Docs differential between public (state) and private insurance. Guess which patients get the Professor?
As far as all being equal, if your family is not originally from Germany your seen as oustlander (out lander). Even if your are born in Germany. Not to meantion the regional differences, Swabian, Hessen , Bavarian……
Hey- they take care of all people. Did you hear about people freezing to death this winter, some in there own homes. How about the summer three years ago when allot of old French people died due to the heat.
Another point- we created this Utopia called Europe. We stop them from fighting among themselves. We beat them and told them how to live.
America is the most generous, selfless, country in the world. what you want is heaven and it just does exist in our realm.

Posted by Gonzo | Report as abusive

We need to be ourselves, not a copy of Europe. Someone else may try to be first with an idea, but being first is not always being right! We must think seriously what are the ramifications of an act, then direct our thinking to those who can make good things happen.. Only well thought out ideas should be proposed. Hear both sides of an argument, then act well and good in the interests of God and His creations! Having the true interests of the bulk of humanity must be uppermost in the ideas of our leadership!

The right wind agenda has killed what ever rugged individualism there is; because for too long we believed their lies. No doubt the lack of protests show Americans have been too busy being individualists paying past bue bills and have cowered into submission by the few individuals that have actually control this country. No don’t wake up-you cannot handle what a greedy few has done to OUR-the majority’s, county.

How long will America listen to this pathetic chant? Well I hope it has lost its catchy sound bites and personalities-even Rush Limbaugh has few Republican friends now, because it was only celebrity and spectacle, nothing humanly important here. A whole generation of lives have been lost to VCRs and distractions that amounted to squabble and a fear that ran paycheck to paycheck. A well crafted symphony of obliteration that has left the many rugged individualists with nothing to show for their hard work. Plenty of people played by the rules and in the end after producing nothing but cheap marketable crap they are buried or burned with nothing to show for what was a real life potential:. I have seen a family business of 30 years come to its knees when his wife got cancer. Having lost everything at the first big medical issue, retirees get coned when the medical bills kick in and they loose everything they worked for in their rugged individualists country. We have a great country and I am glad Americans have begun to take it back from what is really just a pack of wolves at a kill. We have squandered too many lives all because some few Americans wanted to control and maintain a pathetic display of money.

This right wing ideology has ran its course and now has no new ideas, big surprise. And just like the Monopoly game has to end at some point, America must get up from this and find something important to do with their lives.

Posted by Russell Spears | Report as abusive