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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“Rugged Individualism” is some notion straight out of a Hollywood Clint Eastwood cowboy movie. Or John Wayne liberating Iwo Jima.

What rugged individualism? America has become the Instant Gratification Society binging on cheap money that has woken up, the morning after, with a pounding migraine. Nobody is shedding tears over what has happened to America.

They had it coming. Especially for their consummate cupidity that foisted fraudulent financial engineering upon the world.

Posted by Paul Harris | Report as abusive

As one patriot said a long time ago, when this country was under attack by people who wanted to put an end to our “individualism”……
“Give me Liberty or give me death’!
But there again, Mr. Debusmann, I don’t guess you and the rest of the socialist underground would understand that, would you?!

Posted by Sandy St.John | Report as abusive

If you want the security of a safety net, you ought to go to a country that already offers the security of a safety net. The United States is the competitive country that drives the innovation used around the world. We ought to leave it as is, let the weak fail, and encourage this competition. For those who can’t hack it, we offer Europe.

Bust is the driving force of the boom in economics. It is these busts that not only provide the cheap capital (as in equipment) that provides profit for the successors. These profits are then re-invested in the spirit of competition and innovation until competition drives the profits to zero and the cycle starts over. By putting a safety net under the bust, we are preventing this progression from taking place.

We should open all borders, not only to let the hard-working immigrants in, but to also allow the fat cats, who want their entitlement, out.

Greed is good. Investors will stop taking unnecessary risks when they learn they will not be bailed out. Stakeholders will be less affected when they start educating themselves as opposed to being sheep. These are the hard lessons of life that cannot be learned under a nanny state.

Posted by Adrien | Report as abusive

Excellent article and very very interesting posts. Obviously an emotional bullseye. America is in a deep identity crisis, much like the UK and Western Europe after WWII. China is gradually assuming the role America had in the last century — the world’s dominant industrial power and Creditor-in-Chief of the World. Just as the dollar overtook the pound as world reserve currency, perhaps one day, the Chinese yuan will do the same. In this toggle of roles, China regards America much like America regards Europe — as something to measure its own progress against, to admire while you’re on the way up and to despise once you’ve overtaken them. For America, China’s (re)ascendance as a great power is not nearly as phychologically frustrating as the feeling of being overtaken by the Europeans on the way down.

Posted by Benyamin | Report as abusive

Why is this socialism so bad? Easy, If you accept the Kant, Hegel, Marx based German philosophical ideals, you have lost the freedom allowed by true Christianity and the US constitution.

For over 200 years, this country has been able to maintain that specific relation ship and freedom. Now those bent of philosophy are twisting the United states toward its ever evil claws.

We are the last remaining nation in the entire world that had not accepted German idealistic, Greek based philosophy. Now we are being forced by our Congress and President to embrace their false beliefs that a world bound the world together under socialists international and in their opinion eliminate any opposition between ethnic groups, countries and religious organizations.

This is the same idealistic one world order that is spoken of in Revelation, and we are the last to be assimilated into it as a nation. It is the most destructive force known to man, it has gobbled up in its wake every individual and individualism. It has removed the private ownership and private individualism and replaced it with the tyranny of State control and forced the free individual into a comradeship in the community.
It will turn quickly into a one world governmental system under the control of the United Nations.

The individual and the nation has turned their back on the God of Israel and placed their faith and trust in an ideology of State
They turn to the State for their solutions
They turn to the State for their well being
They turn to the State for their food and shelter
The State has just become their god, and its tyrannical leaders their messiah
They worship the great State and bow to its leaders as if gods

All that is left to do is wash “in God we trust” from all of our currency and public buildings and places. We have been so successful spitting in his face in the educational system, I expect the fairness doctrine will require that churches which teach Christianity also be required to teach Islam. Or why don’t we do like the Russians did when they switched to the German ideology based on philosophy and just nail the doors of the churches shut?

Posted by Bobby Hawk | Report as abusive

Another commentator of this article said that US leads innovation of the world. However, UK, Canada, New Zeland and Costa Rica have, according to health economy experts the most advanced health systems in the world.

I was talking to an American principal of a school recently and he says that Costa Rican students are achieving better grades in international math championships and that makes him feel frustrated.

How good is innovation, if it does not benefit population? Costa Rica is a third world country, by the way…

This US principal said that the situation of many americans is desperate, and he can see it at school. And he believes that to get out of the crisis, US will have to go against many beliefs and behaviors that led US to be in this crisis. Denial of problems is not an option anymore. If you hide problems, they won’t be solved, they will grow bigger. Not my words, but his.

Posted by Pablo | Report as abusive

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works…”

-Barak Obama, inauguration speech 01/20/2009

Posted by Reader | Report as abusive

Yeah, American pride is taking a knock – and the smarter of the leaders admit it. Such as Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, who told a hearong on February 13: “The widely held perce[ption that excesses in US financial markets and inadequate regulation were responsible (for the global crisis) has increased criticism of free market policies which may make it difficult to achieve long-time US objectives such as the opening of national capital markets…It has already increased questioning of US stewardship of the global economy and the international financial structure.”

US stewardship? That’s yesterday’s story.

Posted by Rufus | Report as abusive

It’s about what you call individualism:

As a soldier (e.g somebody who kills other people for the “benefit” of other people for money) you are an individual when you kill your counterpart with a knife instead of a bullet.

As a clerk you are an individual when you drink your coffee without sugar, and your boss with sugar & milk.

The days are due that so called individualism (which never existed) will be a reason to see (or hear) dead man walking.

Do you individuals not see that USA is going down the drain in a year or less, and taking the rest of the so called civilised world with it? what is the point of being individual than?

What a non issue.

Oh by the way, when you didn’t notice it yet:
I’m an european

Posted by Me | Report as abusive

I am a democrat and the Government does not know best. It’s not capitalism if the Government regulates it at the rate we are going. This citizens of this great country are loosing freedom at the same rate Hugo is taking it from his people. People who support this article are the people who don’t want childrens sports to have a winner or loser because we may cause emotional trauma to the child. Teaching competition and feeling pain from a mistake (financial or physical) is the best way to improve. Less regulation and tax (yes I am a democrat) will again allow this country to flourish.

Posted by Andrew | Report as abusive

Mr. Choi, I agree that most people here in the US who do not have a college degree seem to blur economic systems with political systems.

For those of you, who think this is a democratic society, think again. You live in a Republic where the people you vote into office are not obliged to vote the way you want or even the way the majority of their district wants but the way their contributors want. Why, because you have allowed them to believe that it does not matter what you want as long as they have enough money they can persuade you to think their way. Why you really don’t even vote for the President. The Electoral College elects the President. Even though this nation has had the ability and the technology to move toward a more democratic political system, such a move is deemed counter productive given the level of intelligence of the common citizen. That is not me speaking but various Washington Think Tanks. Me, I am for democracy and all the responsibility it brings to each of us but, I won’t get into that now. Let’s just say that I am a Constitutionalist who thinks the people are smart enough or will be in a very short time if given the responsibility.

For those of you who think this country economic system is capitalism, think again. We are a hybrid. Pure capitalism does not work. Neither does any other economic system. Capitalism must have market expansion to survive. No market is infinite. The current condition is a prime example. Capitalism left unchecked leads to oligopolies and monopolies which destroys the entire theory of Free Market economics. The Auto Industry is a case in point. The US auto industry was(is) an oligopoly in this country until Japan broke into the market and when that happened suddenly our cars (on average) started lasting over 100k miles. Look at Chrysler and the slant six engines. It was known for lasting over 100k and they stopped production and when Japan moved in it took Iacocca to slap them upside the head and start producing them again. Today we have the TBTFs. That smacks of Capitalism gone wild and we are feeling the pain. I agree with those that say we should have let them fail. I think the TARP and the Stimulus packages should have pumped money into the social individual safety nets and started a WPA style job program and opened Civil Service to absorb those displaced. This would have allowed the markets to adjust while the government protected the workers of those markets. Let’s face it, it is not the workers that took the risks and made the big bucks for all those years. But this government decided to bail out the big boys and go light on the little guy. Maybe if this government would have not allowed these TBTFs in the first place and would have had better watchdogs monitoring the creation of questionable financial instruments maybe we would not be in the fix we are currently in.

Now this is how the two relate. Guess who runs Congress? Not the workers who just happen to be the majority of the voters. That’s right the very small minority called the Wealthy. And you wondered why we bailed out those big financial institutions and the Auto Industry. And for those that will come back and say that by saving those TBTFs they save millions of jobs for those workers. That is true but, all that means is that these wealthy have taken a page from the Terrorist hand book and are protecting themselves by using the little guy as a shield. And it is my opinion that the government should do that through safety nets like unemployment benefits and Cobra and others that should be implemented to safeguard the working class of the US. Let the entrepreneurs take the risks. But protect the workers, who had no say in the direction those entrepreneurs took, from the darker side of Capitalism.

How does all this relate to the EU style governments? We are all hybrids of some sort. We are all trying to find the best fit.

Posted by B.Free | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, we in for at least a decade of ragged individualism.

Posted by D Sakarya | Report as abusive

Well, I agree with you mostly Mr. Free but I do believe pure Capitalism works. The current economic system we have, needs market expansion to survive. Pure Capitalism does depend on growth as well but at much slower rate. We’re just accelerating, or bubbling that growth with debt in current system. And with current growth of population which is estimated to be 6.5 million per month, there’s plenty of market expansion for pure Capitalism.
At this point, it seems impossible to go back to pure Capitalism as that’s what Ron Paul proposed and evidently, not enough voters agreed with him.

ikea was the anti-spam word i had to enter when posting this comment. which brings to mind the FACT that Ikea accepts Visa and Mastercard, but not liberty or Liberty. it can’t be eaten. it accounts for none of the GDP of any nation and is reduced to the choice between Coke v. Pepsi, Privacy v. Imposed Morality, and Higher Culturally Inflated Standard of Living Those Willing to Accrue Massive Debt v. My Right to Thumb My Nose at Global Concerns. Liberties are taken by individuals, but are given by whom exactly? which of our liberties would diminish of our GDP was spent on something like… health care? we could just go back to pissing it into the winds of credit markets. ‘cuz that what rugged means!
if you give people money, guess what? they’ll spend it. and you know where it goes? you. your boss. the housing market. the drug industry. the automobile industry and with a little luck, maybe even an interest bearing account. roads don’t build themselves and buses don’t grow on trees. and even if they did, you’d bet we’d subsidize them and insure better working condition for those who pick them and a fare market value for its export.
less is less. more is more. that’s something rugged individualism does not teach you. i’ll outsource the upward motion of my boot straps to Prada, and my atomization to CERN thank you very much. as an individual, community member and resident of the planet Earth; i’ll gladly pay more for more.

Posted by carmella | Report as abusive

EXCELLENT article, Bernd!

Not what some American “conservative” ideologists want to hear, but too friggin bad! ;-)

Seriously, how some of the posters here, and their idiot mouthpieces like Boehner, and the various media clowns that both speak and think for them, can continue to preach the “greed is good” mantra is beyond me.

Maybe they haven’t eaten enough salmonella contaminated peanut butter …

No Western European country has 300+ million people like the United States. No Western European country has over 9,000,000 sq km of land with associated infrastructure like the United States does. No country in the world has as sophisticated a military industrial complex as the United States of America. No country in the world has Federalist system of government as integral as the United States with 50 mostly independent states united by one central government.

By the figures cited in this article, the amount of money spent in the United States by government is very close to the amount spent by European governments especially when state and local government spending are factored in, yet the structure of the social programs in the U.S. is nothing like the structure in Europe.

The European system works in Europe. The United States of America is not Europe. There is no evidence to suggest that it is even possible to make a European type system work in the United States.

Posted by James | Report as abusive

As a republican for the last 20 years I was in love with capitalism and was all the way gung ho with all the pundits supporting it on the radio, you know who I ‘m talking about. But as we have scene with all these swindlers falling out of a box of rat traps in this recent eceonomic downfall you really have to be taking advantage of 99.9% of the people to really take advantage of it. The rest of us who still continue to support it are really uneducated and lack understanding of what is happening here. Radio talk show hosts live on thsi stuff, this is their bread and butter. They have a motivation to make you think capitalism in raw form is still the way to go. If you still don’t trust me, take a reality check and think about how you have actually benfited from capitalism and do europeans still get the same benefits we do and and more.

Capitalism is like that girlfriend or boyfriend that we really wanted when we were younger, but knew they weren’t good for us. Let’s grow up and think about what has this done for me lately. And look furhter down the future and see what it has in store for you. I’m thinking particularly about helath care. Think about what your actually going to retire on and consider inflation. Do you really think your going to afford health care. My wife and I are upper middle class and we have relatives who own technology businesses; none of us can see being able to pay for health care after retirement without the government waiting for us to spend all our saved money ebfore they help us. I would rather pay into a national health care system and give everyone health care, rather than pay some CEO several million dollars so he can have several mansions and a yacht. Why shouldn’t everyone get health care?? Why should we let executives at HMO treat us at their mercy? No one should have to beg for health care. That is not a civilized society.

Posted by Rich | Report as abusive

Bernd, I think your opinion is in the same direction as mine! I also like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, but in reality the self-attained equilibrium in the free market is a rarity and when it happens is volatile and lasts a short period of time. With no other rules to follow “greed” will rule sending economies into recession any day. With the time the volatility may actually have an adverse effect over the “rugged American individualism” in question, as businesses close doors in the thousands and those that survive feel the pain and are bruised in a recession.

I feel like a character in Animal Farm. It will slowly creep up on us until we are just used to it..kinda like gas prices

Posted by Debbie | Report as abusive

One thing should be restated about the current economic crisis: The Republicans had the ball and they dropped it. Greed and corruption and plain incompetence has marked the last 8 years of government.

While not taking one bit of urgency and horror away from terrorist acts, the greatest and most sacred trust of any government in the United is to make sure the people have their Constitutional rights. Now, these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t say right to work or right to education or right to health care. But the Constitution was written in a different time. Wise as the founding fathers were, they would be the first, I believe, to suggest some additions to this document.
Having expressed this opinion, we still have not had the frank words from any politician right or left. I only hope someone has the guts, the fortitude and the common sense to speak up and say to all of us:
“Get real. Tighten your belts. Get off your butts. This is how bad it really is.”

Wouldn’t that be amazing? I believe this country can do anything. But if we don’t understand the problems in full and know how much trouble we are really in, we can’t do anything about it. We need our leaders to treat us as partners, not children.

Posted by erin Van Tassel | Report as abusive