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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Bill H: And when you or others fail, do we pick you up or let you starve????

Posted by Dale Kooyman | Report as abusive

This Country was created by The Constitution of The United States. It was brought to life by LEADERS and stakeholers who put everything they had into it. This document speaks to the best part of us. I suggest all you people read it again. It wants us to determine the value and effectiveness of OUR government. If the government has not followed the principals set forth, it calls on us, from 230 years ago, to CHANGE THE GOVERNMENT.

Posted by George W. | Report as abusive

February, 18th 23:28 GMT.
It amuse me to read different reaction about the article.
Whether America will nanny state or remain rugged individualist typed society is not urgent at the moment for debating.
Economic damages done by unregulated and unfettered speculators to feed their greed and to flatter their egos is the main reason for this sorry state.
In fact it has logically proved that Unfettered capitalism to dangerous for human society.
What is there to think about merits and demerits about capitalism under the present circumstances.
We should be concentrating on what bankers are thinking and planning to do about pulling out recession fast and soon!!
This should be our top priority.Any system of economic principles whether Capitalism or Socialism that helps pull us out of recession will ultimately be proved successful economic principle and will be cherished by all.

Posted by Jagdish Joshi | Report as abusive

Don’t worry what the Republicans in this country say! – We stop listening to them months ago! :-)

Posted by Marc Glez | Report as abusive

At every stage of American history, Americans have always been at their core a practical people, not an ideological people. Ideology, whether Western European socialist ideology or homegrown neoconservative ideology, is really inimical to the American spirit, which in many ways remains the spirit of the family farmer. In the end, Americans want to be able to follow leaders who appear to be offering something that will work, not something that is ideologically correct. This, and only this, is the source of President Obama’s popularity. Those politicians, especially in the House of Representative, who are exercising themselves to take a stand against him sound (to me) like they are talking only to themselves and not to the majority of Americans.

Posted by Bob | Report as abusive

Here are some points you might consider in favor of America’s emphasis on the individual, but you might as well refer to the founding fathers, the reasons aren’t much different, only the players are. First of all, we don’t believe that the excess fruits of our labors belong to the state. And that has worked well for us, and the world. We’ve defeated the villains; we’ve educated your people; we’ve paid for your defense; we’ve developed leading technologies. We became the strongest, richest nation in the world. And we did this while passing only 10 to 20 percent on average during the 20th century of our GDP through the government’s hands. This nation respects the right of the individual to protect himself, with lethal force if necessary, rather than sacrifice himself for the falacy of the greater good. We are the hardest working nation on the planet. In fact, while our nation carried to load, Europe became soft, fat, and complacent, while your governments preyed upon their citizen’s wealth (currently 50 to 55% of GDP is claimed by European states) to pass to their blueblood friends and family members. We enabled Europe to pursue leisurely lifestyles, park-like settings, transit systems, and then, when a villain shows up on the world landscape, we take care of them for you. Remember Yugoslavia? Yugoslavia could have beaten, or at least fought to a draw, the best armies of Europe. Germany was shaking in her boots. Europe is nothing without the United States, can’t you see? I wouldn’t relish in our difficulties if I were you. To become European is to become weak; a has-been; to have settled; to have abdicated. Watership Down. Becoming European is our country’s greatest fear. Unfortunately, we have a European minded president that aspires to that vision and is mortgaging our nation’s future. We have been fooled. Hopefully our people will soon wake up. Long Live Liberty!

Posted by Dennis | Report as abusive

‘We have met the enemy and he is us!’ Canada’s is doing great!

Yup, I’m a rugged individualist Amurrican.

But in return for “europeanization,” i.e centralization of many elements
of our financial system, would we get not only a return to a healthy
economic state but also
+ good schools?
+ womb-to-tomb health care?
+ highways repaired within a reasonable time after pot holes appear?
+ more than two weeks’ vacation a year?
+ a sensible length of paid maternity and paternity leave with a
guarantee of return to our original jobs?
+ conservation of our artistic heritage?
+ subsidies of our musical and dramatic arts?

If so, I’ll urge my senators and representative in the House to vote for
it.

Posted by S. Klee | Report as abusive

Westerners,particularly americans, are:
eating more than producing;
fukking,dancing,drinking and whatever else 100%;
work zero%. So what do you expect? Now see the economy is
in trillions without having to work !30 years ago there
were hardly any billionaires to be heard about; now there
are plenty, thanks to wasteful spending??
US seem to living off the world and yet projecting image
that it is a saviour of the world and helping.
Man,get the FOOH

Posted by jjmk4546 | Report as abusive

I’m am an American and I have been living in Europe for the past 14 years. As an American I still balk and twitch at the forced compliance that the various European social systems I encounter impose. I also see the amazing benefits that can be realized when something as massive and well financed as “A Government” takes responsibility for it’s peoples well-being. There is an exploitavie nature to free markets that only benefit the top of the food chain, and the top of the food chain will always resist what they see as encroachment into there profit zone. That exploitive nature puts corporate profit before health and well being of the individual. I have always seen that the only way to a strong society is through strong individuals and individualism. To have storng individuals you need healthy and safe individuals. The GOP cries “Socialism” when they are actually saying, “That’s our profit zone”. I enjoy my 100% health care for $65.00 per month.

Posted by Doc Ellis | Report as abusive

People still can’t distinguish between economic and social system. Democracy is still working, its the Capitalism that’s broken. Well… that’s not true either because what we currently have is not a Capitalism… nobody has capital but mountain of debt. If we actually go back to Capitalism, it would actually work.
Ethics… has disappeared. Reagan was the beginning of the end with his stupid trickle down economy and “market knows best” BS. We should all thank Reagan for Bernie Madoff and Stanford. With ethics gone, we have no option but to rely on government regulation and oversight. Is that socialism? Who cares how you label it as long as it works.
If nothing else, please adopt the metric system.

I’ve felt for quite a few years now that maybe the Europeans had some good ideas when it comes to taking care of their citizens. Until recently I didn’t have medical or vision insurance, that’s why I’ve been wearing the same pair of glasses since 2000. In the next few days I will finally have new glasses.

If it weren’t for a couple of public institutions I wouldn’t have a job now. One of those institutions was the Workforce Center and the other was the public library. Without them I wouldn’t have had access to the internet to submit applications, resumes or take the necessary tests. Some of those Republican congressman really are clueless.

Posted by Brian Bigelow | Report as abusive

Chris W,
You sir, have only proven my point.

‘Rugged Individualism’ is meaningless and pointless. The concept has nothing to do with the running of a good government, or what resources should be delivered to whom and when. These are serious questions with very different answers depending on what particular situation we are currently looking at.

Outliers is a great book that helps dispel the myth of the ‘self made man’. I personally always thought that this myth was the perfect excuse to treat poor people shabbily – if we are fully responsible for our own destinies, then others poverty is fully their own fault, and is no responsibility of mine.

At the end of the day, it’s not rich vs poor, or capitalists vs communists, or individualists vs nanny staters – none of these dichotomies make any sense outside of pubs. When you get down to the micro level, where real decisions are made, you have to have strategy, best practices in place, checks and balances, and most important of all; smart and talented people – all trying to make the best fit of limited resources to unlimited needs. And yes, some people need a kick in the butt to be productive, but others need a helping hand. And these people may switch positions relative to where they are in life.

Life is hard, and life is complicated, and as nice and hollywood as these distinctions are, they really belong only in pulp fiction.

Posted by James Perly | Report as abusive

As a citizen of the United Kingdom I find it hilarious how completely most Americans that have posted comments here misunderstand the way government works in most European states.

Firstly, Socialism Communism. Log onto Wikipedia, or, if you have some strange Republican notion that it has been written by the ‘elitist liberal media’ then dig out an old encyclopaedia, and actually READ the definitions of socialism and communism.

Secondly – MATTHEW L, 60% of my income DOES NOT go to the government with ‘very little return on investment’, and, even though around 30% of my $25,000 equivalent salary does go to the government, this covers my healthcare provision, unemployment benefit when I am out of work, (contrary to what the newspapers in the UK state) excellent and affordable public transport, affordable loans for higher education and more. In Scandinavia where the tax rates are even higher (close to 50%), they enjoy one of the highest standards of living – right across the population – in the world. FAR higher than in the US.

Those who believe in unfettered capitalism often talk at length about how the proceeds of growth ‘trickle down’, that the best way to increase the individual’s standard of living is hard graft in a completely free marketplace. This is (quite obviously if you actually look at what takes place in the real world – not in some fictional ‘America’ you like to believe exists) a fallacy. The motive of corporations is to increase profits.

In response to ANDY – it was not the ‘commie conspiracy to break the economy by applying for loans that they full-well knew they could not pay off’ that broke the system, it was the greed of those bankers and mortgage lenders who were paid bonuses based on the number of deals they closed, irrespective of how likely those loans were to be eventually paid off. Where has all the money gone? Into the pockets of rich individuals, the same believers in deregulated markets. Why do they favour deregulation? Because it allows them to ‘suck’ money out of the economy. These financial institutions do not exist to add value to the economy. They perform no ‘work’ to generate wealth. They generate wealth by speculating, and by encouraging market volatility. And then, when the plates can no-longer be kept spinning in the air, the classic plea of the big bankers “we can’t be allowed to fail, you will all be screwed”, and yet again, privatisation of profits and socialisation of losses.

That is why in critical fields, that in Europe are referred to as ‘Public services’, fields that are considered essential to the quality of life of the public, such as public transport, healthcare, education, power generation and key utilities, it has been demonstrated that state-run services perform better. They do not perform better when the metric by which you evaluate them is COST, or profit, but when the metric is ‘QUALITY OF SERVICE’, they are superior. The reason is simple – motive. The state-run services are there to provide a service, for the benefit of the populace, paid for by the populace. The privately run services are there, first and foremost, to make more money. Where nationalised industries in the UK have been privatised, quality and availability of service have decreased.

You rarely hear the less well-off talking about the ‘trickling down’ of the proceeds of growth. And although some on here say it, I honestly don’t believe that many people would be happier free, free to starve.

Posted by seb sikora | Report as abusive

Dennis, posting at 7:55 GMT, is the most intelligent, grounded individual reading this article. He is the only person who has a firm grasp on what it means to be self sufficient and provide for one’s own well being, whatever that takes. He is the only person who hasn’t sighted revisionist history to support his opinion and he’s the only person who sees a problem with healthy, hard working people, like us, forking over a goodly portion of their hard earned salaries to “lift up the downtrodden”, whomsoever that may be, when those people have not done anything to deserve it. For you see, he is the only person reading this article who understands that “the government” is US. The American citizenry. WE are the ones who will spend our treasure financing the lifestyles of those who can’t or won’t work, not some unseen, all powerful national entity that simply manufactures money out of thin air. He knows, as do I, that WE are the people who pay for all those wonderfully European social programs. That’s why I wonder why either of us are reading this ridiculous socialist crap.

Posted by Orionsbow | Report as abusive

What kind of a name is “Bernd” anyway? Might we have one of those European intellectual interlopers in our midst as we speak?

Posted by Winchester73 | Report as abusive

The rationalization for Rugged Individualism disappears quickly when one thinks about disappearing jobs, high cost of education and ridiculous medical costs. It is a feel-good concept when times are good. But, when times go bad even the giant corporations run to the government for a bailout. These big insurance companies have triggered (to some extent) the turn of events.

Example: If one wants to buy a pair of spectacles without insurance, then the minumum cost for a decent pair is $100. The frame is made in China and shouldnt cost more than $5 (cheap plastic or simple metallic). Why are prices bumped up 20x? Why are companies charging extra money for something that was manufactured at $1? $100 is the montly income for many people in the world. Insurance companies charge a dear premium from the customers and sellers charge a dear price from them. People who have insurance dont feel the jacked up price, but the unfortunate ones land up paying $100 for something that shouldnt be more than $5 or $10. This applies to doctors, dentists and almost everything else. Prices are jacked up several times.

Posted by Sharad Yadav | Report as abusive

Dale Kooyman: What do you mean by ‘starve’.

If you starve, then go do the hard jobs.
Remember, 30 mil Mexicans who work hard everyday, risking their lives coming to the US to do those hard jobs. Are they ‘starved’ ?

It’s sick that a lot of people think being born in the US (or being a naturalized US citizen) is a privilege that God gave them. So that they can do a mediocre job and hope to live a dream life in big house (with sub prime loan money), driving SUV (on a 5 year finance) , going to a poor tropical countries for vacation every year (on credit card), etc…

As the above is the current version of ‘the American dream’. No doubt the whole economy is collapsing.

The real version of ‘the American dream’ should be that people work hard and earn a good life (just like the first generation immigrants).

It’s also sick that we have people partying their lives into a mess during youth time and demanding the government to deliver the good life, bailing them out both medically and financially later in life (or live the twisted version of the American dream I mentioned above, it’s just as bad)

Posted by Tony | Report as abusive

I had thought there was a general consensus that while the New Deal did not end the Depression, it helped reduce its effects on many individuals, and that what did end the Depression was World War II.

Since wars are destructive and not productive, though, that means that governments could end depressions if they thought it was worth the effort.

If it’s possible for entities to be “too big to fail”, such as Wal-Mart & Ford, then is that to say government is too big to fail also? The reason economies keep crashing throughout history is because a monetary fund is not a stable concept to base an economy or civilization around. Similar to building a card castle with bent cards every time. Government has outlived it’s purpose in life. Civilizations can’t grow without restrictions with the government constantly holding our hands, reaching into our pockets, and peeping into our lives. Money and government are not too big to fail, and they have failed. Americanizaqtion, Europeanization, it’s all the same hierarchy. One person cannot be an equally effective representative for 3 billion + people. The global economy is spiraling the toilet and we must clench our dying global civilization, unite, and push back the oppressing governments.

Posted by Dan W. | Report as abusive