U.S. Still Believes We Control Our Personal Destinies

Today, the Pew Research Center released the following:
The American-Western European Values Gap

It should be no surprise that Americans value personal freedom more than they value a social safety net. The United States is a nation built by explorers who managed to survive frontiers. Even immigrants celebrate the rugged individualism of our national heros. A table of the survey findings:

Notice that the data are mirror images. Europe has a different history, one shaped by two world wars and various upheavals. Neither approach is "right" or "wrong" — but I definitely fall in the personal freedom camp. I do not trust governments to solve problems and would rather be left alone to succeed or fail, as much as possible.

Most Americans support a minimal safety net, but nothing comparable to the European welfare state.

Individualism and the Role of the State

In the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, views of the role of the state divide significantly across ideological lines. For example, three-quarters of American conservatives say individuals should be free to pursue their goals without interference from the state, while 21% say it is more important for the state to guarantee that nobody is in need; among liberals in the U.S., half would like the state to play an active role to help the needy, while 42% prefer a more limited role for the state. 
Those on the political right in Britain, France and Germany are also more likely than those on the left in these countries to prioritize freedom to pursue one’s goals without state interference. Unlike in the U.S., however, majorities of those on the right in France (57%) and Germany (56%) favor an active role for the state, as do more than four-in-ten (45%) conservatives in Britain.
Even the "conservative" position in Europe holds on to the dream of a benevolent state. I am a cynic: centralized power seldom produces the results desired. Again, different experiences, but I also don't see much historical evidence that strong governments have ended well for European citizens. Too often, these strong governments have mismanaged resources and hindered creative solutions to problems.
American opinions about the role of the state also vary considerably across age groups. About half (47%) of those younger than 30 prioritize the freedom to pursue life’s goals without interference from the state and a similar percentage (46%) say it is more important for the state to ensure that nobody is in need; among older Americans, however, about six-in-ten consider being free a higher priority, with just about three-in-ten saying the state should play an active role so that nobody is in need. No such age difference is evident in the four Western European countries surveyed.
I am among those shifting farther and farther away from trusting government with each year. Owning a business, working in management, paying taxes, dealing with city regulations, and fighting to improve our education system have all worked against my trust in government. Too often, government is simply crony capitalism (corporatism) or idealistic "wise men" trying to tell us what is best for our lives. Large companies love strong central governments with mandates and regulations that (magically) favor behemoths over small business.

The European model favors being "good enough." I want to be the greatest. I want to be better than my competition. I want to be in control of my business success or failure. However, Europeans don't believe that we are in charge of our fates. Ironic, for a highly secularized culture. For a region that is rejecting faith, it seems to hold to a concept of predestination.
Asked if they agree that “success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control,” Americans again offer more individualistic views than those expressed by Western Europeans. Only 36% of Americans believe they have little control over their fate, compared with 50% in Spain, 57% in France and 72% in Germany; Britain is the only Western European country surveyed where fewer than half (41%) share this view.
There is a reason for Europeans to believe your birth decides your fate: they don't share the American tradition of socio-economic mobility. Most Americans don't realize it, but nearly half of the people in the top quintile of earners are not in the top quintile after a decade. Likewise, half of the bottom quintile of earners are no longer in the bottom after a decade. The U.S. economy is dizzyingly dynamic. That can be disorienting.

In the U.S., if you have a college degree and are married, the odds are you will be in the top 40 percent of wage earners. Research suggests the surest way to reach the middle class is to be married and a high school graduate, which I've written about on this blog in the past. Education is the path to economic freedom. Government cannot make you finish high school or prepare for college, though.
In the U.S. and in Western Europe, those without a college degree are less individualistic than those who have graduated from college; this is especially the case in the U.S. and Germany. About three-quarters (74%) of Germans in the less educated group believe that success in life is largely determined by forces beyond one’s control, compared with 55% of college graduates. Among Americans, 41% of those without a college degree say they have little control over their fate, while just 22% of college graduates share this view.


  1. Almost 3/4 of Germans believe their futures are out of their control? Do they believe in the fates? Pre-destiny? Or do they know that government regulations hamper socio-econominc success? And yet they believe in a strong government-controlled safety net for society?

    Where's their proof that government is the solution for all problems?


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