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

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

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