Radio-hosting duties consumed much of my time on Tuesday. Back tomorrow with a fresh DJ. In the meantime, a look back at some international comparisons I first wrote about in 2008.
RALEIGH – As I’ve written quite a bit lately about how America differs from Europe and much of the rest of the industrialized world, I thought it might be a good idea to follow up with some survey research recently compiled by The American magazine.
Its “Datapoints” contributor, Karlyn Bowman, devoted her pages in the March/April 2008 issue to comparing attitudes about government and public policy in America and its major European peers: Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Although it is important not to assume that general patterns necessarily translate into predictable policy differences in every case – as I’ve illustrated in such cases as education and water service – the philosophical divide remains significant.
To some degree, actually, it is a religious divide. Only Catholic Italy even comes close to rivaling the U.S. in the degree of religiosity, with France bringing up the rear. Here’s how many people in each country answered affirmatively to this question: “I am a believer in any form of God or any type of Supreme Being.”
While I tend to favor finding secular-based arguments for public policies whenever possible, so as to maximize the likelihood of consensus and minimize the likelihood of dismissal based on religious prejudice, the explanatory power of this religious divide is inescapable. It would be foolish to expect American attitudes on a host of issues and questions – from individualism and personal responsibility to faith in a better future – to much resemble attitudes prevalent in largely agnostic societies.
For example, a separate survey found a big gap in public sentiment about who is responsible for taking care of the poor. Here are the percentages “completely” affirming the following statement: “It is the responsibility of the government of my country to take care of very poor people who can’t take care of themselves”:
Modern-day American liberals jump to the conclusion that a “no” to this question suggests a lack of compassion. That just means they aren’t reading the question closely and considering the matter objectively. Most Americans believe that families are primarily responsible for the care of poor relatives, and that if no families are available, individuals are morally obligated to render assistance of their own accord, directly or through voluntary associations and charities, rather than doing nothing and waiting for government to compel action.
As it happens, the same issue of The American summarizes research from Arthur Brooks showing that religious and politically conservative people are far more generous with their personal money and time – even after adjusting for income and other factors – than are seculars and liberals. Not surprisingly, then, Americans as a whole are much more generous than their less-religious, less-conservative European counterparts.
In a more general sense, Americans differ from Europeans on the balance between respecting liberty and guaranteeing incomes. Asked in 2002 whether it was more important “that everyone is free to pursue their life’s goals without interference from the government” or “that government should play an active role in society so as to guarantee nobody is in need,” here’s how Americans and Europeans answered:
Freedom vs. Guarantee
USA-58 percent to 34 percent
Germany-39 percent to 57 percent
France-36 percent to 62 percent
Britain-33 percent to 62 percent
Italy-24 percent to 71 percent
On foreign-policy questions, Britain edges a little closer to the U.S., but other countries are far more suspicious of military action. For example, while 74 percent of Americans and 59 percent of Britons agree that “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice,” only a quarter or fewer of French, Italian, Spanish, and German respondents agree. This isn’t just a referendum on the Iraq War: while two-thirds of Americans and a majority of British approve of the NATO military mission in Afghanistan, most French, Italians, Spanish, and Germans don’t.
As previously noted, there is a strong case based on living standards and survey research for Europeans to become more like Americans rather than the reverse. Bowman’s compilation offers a closing thought. Asked if “on the whole, I am very satisfied with the life I lead,” 58 percent of Americans say yes. Among Europeans, the percentage is typically in the 20s or 30s. In France, it is 18 percent. Inspiring, huh?
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.