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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Even if the stimulus plan works, it will only be an over priced band-aid covering a serious wound. I’m not sure it is wise to leverage our children’s’ futures for a quick fix, especially since there are no proposals in the mix to heal the overall economy in the future. This legislation is incredibly shortsighted, and equally selfish – sort of like a wife asking her husband to fix a leaky pipe and, instead of doing the job right, he merely patches it up with a million dollar roll of duck tape. Instead of quick fixes, we need to focus on an overhaul of our over taxed and over regulated marketplace, otherwise, we will leave a European-style economy to our children and grandchildren – 60% of their income going to the government with very little return on investment.

Posted by Matthew L. | Report as abusive

The “Nanny” and socialist sytems of Europe are constantly in question. Why shoudl America bow to overly liberal ideas in order to conform to social experiments that are not proved to be stable or feasible. in England and other socialized healthcare systems you can be denied care for smoking related illness if you smoked. the waiting times for visits can be excruciating.
How is it wrong for a system to demand that you look after your self?
As for employment, how is the rest of the world fairing better? in Italy the employment is stagnant, and employees can not be let go for many reasons, given a life time employment option.
Few systems are perfect, but a system that forces you to do for yourself is a darn sight better than social safety net that become a social cradle.

Posted by sean parker | Report as abusive

It’s not worth the effort trying to puzzle through Republican bloviating. Nowadays, theirs is a platform based purely on irrationality — mainly irrational fear.

Posted by Skinner | Report as abusive

This is a very insightful and timely article. “Rugged Individualism” in the United States is really just another term for “Oppression.” It fits in well with elitist thinking in the sense that there are a lot of people who seem to identify with the dream that “They too, will be rich some day.” But, of course, the question is, “At whose expense?” Well, even if it is at their own expense they seem to be O.K. with it. This seems really dumb. What about people trying to just get along socially, using the country’s resources to provide economic stability and good physical health care to all walks of life. What about just having a income tax for education and all schools given the same amount of money to educate their children? If this is socialism then so be it, but it seems only like common sense. Today, our economy has collapsed because some people were so greedy there was never enough. How much do you need? And, can you really be happy when other people are suffering? Apparently, some people are. Well, if there is a definition for oppression, then that is it. Just one more thing: some how the Europeans have managed in the process of their socialization to bring “beauty” into their lives and in their surroundings, both architecturally and in their landscapes, while we are making garbage dumps that will soon be their own named mountain range. We should take the time now to think and change our lives. This article is thoughtful and I would like to see more articles like this. Thank you.

Posted by Reuben Ryder | Report as abusive

It seems the main arguement here is that acting more like Western Europe isn’t a bad thing because their countries rank higher. How would passing this bill improve the US’s standing on the Human Development Index?

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

The United States is becoming more like Europe in many ways. The U.S. is getting older and more and more Americans realize something that Europeans have had centuries to accept, namely, that the government should provide a safety net for individuals. Certainly, there are many examples of how people have abused this in Europe and in the US, but it is immoral for governments to do nothing in the face of impending hardships for their citizens. The Republicans party is a party of the past. They are fighting battles that were decided 80 years ago. We understand now that free market capitalism is a great engine for lifting the living standards of the masses, but the government must also provide the necessary stewardship of the economy. This means that in times of crisis, the government must step in to care for those who have fallen through the cracks.

Posted by Davion | Report as abusive

This was all set in motion by socialist (merely a nicer-sounding word for communist) policies that relaxed financial rules to enable the irresponsible to get into serious debt with no strings attached under the guise of equal opportunity.

I’m not usually one for conspiracies but I have pondered the possibility that this outcome was the aim of communists who despise anyone who strives to better themselves.

As long as Americans don’t again succumb to the misguided ideals about helping losers & their offspring dictate policies America will rise back to its rightful place as defender of individual freedoms.

About the standard of living, I just wanto to say that the statistic is affected by the inmigrants. They start with nothing and gradually improve their condition.

Europe is very much more agresive with inmigration, foreign, pour, people is not allowed there, so their rank may look better in somke cases.

I am sure that this number does not reflect what US inmigrants say about US and what european ingirants say about europe.

Posted by Francisco | Report as abusive

To answer your question, it’s just a matter of time.
The rugged individualism of the Wild West has been supplanted by the individualism of capitalists who wanted to turn U.S. and global finance into an unregulated, economic Wild West. They were pretty successful. Both the post Civil War and the Great Depression economies spawned a lot of outlaws and now the U.S. is about to get another taste of it as the number of disenfranchised citizens grows larger.
Our corporations wanted essentially unregulated global capitalism and we’re living the results now having generated yet another period of economic instability that will undoubtedly grow the world’s largest prison population.
Given the U.S. mortgage meltdown, I don’t think our “partners” in the world economy are going to have any more of it. We can either get economically civilized or go it alone like the faux individualists many of our corporate bosses pretended to be until they needed help and ran begging to the people for tax dollars.
We can call it socialism or we can call it a nanny state or call it anything else we wish but those are nothing more than political labels meant to garner votes.
The way I see it, we’re either going to have to start “civilizing” America or be isolated from the rest of the world. We may even lose our reputation as the model of world finance. If we haven’t already.

Posted by Ra | Report as abusive

I don’t want to be European. My grandfather came from Europe and if I wanted to I could go back where I still have family. Let me tell you it ain’t what you think it is. They may live long etc. but it isn’t anything to be copied. If it were so great why do most American’s have families that left there to come here?

Instead I would like to live in place where it is up to me to make it or fail. I like the idea that it is all riding on my shoulders and that no government is going to come and bail me out because at the end of the day if I make it it will give me a feeling worth more than I would ever have from the government saving my sorry behind. Having the freedom to fail is one of the great American freedoms.

Plus it was the rugged individualist who saved Europe’s fanny in WWII and has kept them safe until today. That is right with out the US the European “Union” would be the Soviet Union right now.

Posted by Bill H | Report as abusive

You miss the point entirely. Capitalism is not good for the sole reason that it delivers a high quality of life. That is merely a byproduct. Capitalism is good because it is the only moral option.

A high quality of life funded using money stolen from the highest achievers is not something a moral human should desire.

Posted by Dave | Report as abusive

Does American really have individualism? Please explain in which way you think American ever have individualism in common life and business. Especially, culture?

Posted by nina | Report as abusive

I’m sorry, but I believe the author is slipping into the same baloney that precipitated this mess – namely that the argument has been defined by some sort of right/left dichotomy. The truth is that it is about making good decisions by competent people at all levels of government, with proper checks and balances. That is how you run anything well, from companies to governments. Giving a crap about what Marx or Adams said years ago and how it may or may not reflect on politics today generates the kind of arguments that let the evil people run amok and raid the cupboards bare while the general population worries about non-issues. Small government, low taxes, less regulation, etc, are all non-sensical arguments when taken at the macro level.
The key argument that this article does head towards is this:
what are the fundamentals to a great society, and what is the best method of achieving this?

Posted by James Perly | Report as abusive

God forbid America should become more like Europe! This country is founded on fierce independence and opportunity. I am sure there are factions in this country that would like nothing better than to have a paternalistic government. Namely those already in power! We need to avoid this like the plague which is just what it is. When paternalism is in place the human spirit and will are significantly diminished.

Posted by Har Dass | Report as abusive

Under the Bush era, actions were not taken to keep the house in order. Now, the new steward of the people has to
clean up the mess. All Republicans want to do is cut taxes
but this won’t provide immediate help to the unemployed. Why can’t the whining mainstream republicans get rugged and embrace the housecleaning project set in motion by our leader?
Rugged individuals don’t whine but join together as they did when the founding fathers and pioneers pulled together to form the country. We are still rugged but a house divded does not stand. Is Madoff our shining example of a rugged individualist? Or the Wallstreet Ceos
of the failing institutions? As John Stossel would say, “Give me a break!”.

Posted by Joe Giovanetti | Report as abusive

The truth is whether you wish to believe it or not, we have entered into the era of the end. The Bible speaks in the last days of a One World Governement when they say, “Peace and Safety, at last! Then sudden destruction will come upon them” That is exactly where were heading. No more recession? Global Economy. Helping our world’s citizens? Universal Healthcare. Violence and Disagreements? Tolerance and Inclusion. Ultimately, all of these plans will fall like a house of cards. Government isn’t the answer either. Jesus is! And very soon we are going to see a dynamic shift in the world as we know it. Something is going to shake humanity. Then you will see who still reigns, the Lord GOD.

Posted by The Herald | Report as abusive

Give me a damn break.

The Americanization of American has not worked for the last 8 years. Call it what you want, but a new approach to the curent mess is needed. Also, perpetuaing the myth of rugged individualism is not helpful given the fact that the U.S. has been lead by a man who considered himself a rugged individual. W, is the supreme example that rugged individualism should be Europeanized.

Posted by francisco | Report as abusive

Unlike those readers who will buy into this Europeans live better nonsense, I have actually traveled around most of the United States and Europe and I’m not buying it for a minute. In the United States, the average annual GDP per capita is $48,000. In Europe it’s $33,800. That’s 30 percent less.

You can buy a lot of health insurance for that $14,000 but you don’t really need to. I’m 54 and live in one of the most expensive Zip Codes in Southern California. I have a $5 million private health insurance policy on myself and two $5 million private health insurance policies on my wife for which I pay less than $400 per month total. Health insurance is actually an amazing bargain. People just don’t want to pay today for something they might need tomorrow.

You can also buy a lot of gasoline (and at about a quarter of the price you pay in Europe). Perhaps that is one reason why the United States has 765 cars per 1,000 people (including children to young to drive) while the U.K. has 426.

Electricity is cheaper in the U.S. as well. Air-conditioning is ubiquitous in the U.S. even among the so-called poor. Hundreds if not thousands of Europeans die each year from the summer heat. In 2003, the total number of heat related deaths topped 19,000.

You call this a better standard of living? Please.

Let me make this real simple for you. Here is what is really happening in America.

If you are a political party, you are in business to win elections. To do that, you need voters.

If you are the party of say the long distance runners, you want to create more long distance runners, either by importing them or by influencing voters already here to become long distance runners.

If you are the party of the rich, you want to create more rich voters. You do this by removing impediments to work, saving, investment and production. You lower tax rates and reduce the burden of government.

If you are the party of the poor, you want to create more poor voters. You do this by increasing impediments to work, saving, investment and production. You raise tax rates and increase the burden of government. If this still doesn’t create enough poor voters to solidify your powerbase, you import more poor people and put them on a path to citizenship or just register them to vote anyway. And if this still doesn’t create enough poor voters, you finally just pay people outright to stay dependent on government, which ensures that they never get ahead.

The path to financial independence has an early fork in the road. One way leads to dependence, one to independence. In order to qualify for government handouts, you need to present and document yourself as a victim. In order to get ahead, you need to accept the axiom that “if it’s going to be, it’s up to me”.

These two positions, states of mind really, are diametrically opposed. It is virtually impossible to hold both concepts of oneself simultaneously. This is why you can choose to get by or you can choose to get ahead but you can’t choose both. Of course, you can always go back and revisit that choice. And that is why the welfare reform of the 1990s worked in terms of weaning people off the welfare rolls and onto a different, more responsible, more productive and, ultimately, more independent path.

In repealing welfare reform as well as encouraging illegal immigration, motor voter laws and the right to vote without providing even basic identification, and by constantly pushing for higher taxes, more government intrusion and intervention into business as well as more borrowing and spending, Democrats are simply doing everything in their power to make it easier to get by and harder to get ahead. They’re hoping that when millions of voters and potential voters reach or revisit that fork in the road, they will choose dependency.

What’s so difficult to understand about that? After all, they are the party of the poor. They need to create as many poor people (and as few rich) as possible.

Posted by Randell Young | Report as abusive

‘Europeanization’ covers a whole range of different political and economic systems.

Look at France. Most Europeans think that France is too centralistic (everything gets decided in Paris, practically no saying of local governments) and has a social benefit system that is far too wasteful.

On the other hand, take northern European states like Sweden or Denmark. They have very high tax rates for European standards, but the government covers a lot and people are very satisfied up there. High standard of living with big government.

Then, take Switzerland. Taxes are low there for European standards, but there are nonetheless very good infrastructure, public education (primary to universities) and social benefits. High standard of living with small government.

So the question Americans should ask themselves should not be: How big shall our government be, compared to the European standard?

It should rather be: What do we want the government to cover, then what is the optimal amount of taxes to finance this public service? Governments can be very big and wasteful and inefficient (France), but they can also be very big and efficient (Sweden, Denmark). Or they can be pretty small and efficient (Switzerland).

Posted by Dan Wunderli | Report as abusive

James Perly said: “Small government, low taxes, less regulation, etc, are all non-sensical arguments when taken at the macro level.”

This is only true if you value comfort and absence of pain over freedom. Freedom is not for the faint of heart, for we must confront alongside the light the shadows of our liberties, and the inevitable darkness that results from the freedom of evil alongside the freedom of good. The free man must pay daily the price of his liberty; the comfortable man must only obey.

If we only debate which options will make our lives the most comfortable, our civil liberties will slowly vanish over the next century, for liberties by their nature cause discomfort. I personally would rather live naked in a desert eating scorpions for the rest of my life as a free man than suckle from the teat of mother government, like a poor defenseless child who can’t feed himself, but that is a choice we all must make for ourselves.

Posted by Chris W | Report as abusive