A Delicate Balance – Individualism and Government Power

A Delicate Balance – Individualism and Government Power

The coronavirus pandemic exposes the delicate balance between individual liberties and government power.  At the onset, when government officials pursued policies that prioritized public health – lockdowns and social distancing – the public complied.  After all, the severity of the disease was unknown.  And footage from China and Italy only stoked fears of an approaching plague.

Because the virus exploits our social habits, the impulsive actions of a few could jeopardize the health of literally thousands.  Government authorities thus repeatedly called for personal sacrifice.

As people struggled to make sense of their new circumstances, they did so with a notably stronger regard for community and mindful of their place within it.    

Habits of the Heart

Later, however, as states flattened their curves, and people acclimated to pandemic life, the growing economic toll roused a powerful American value.  Individualism lies at the very core of our political and economic systems, cherishing personal freedoms, self-reliance, independence, hard work, and free will over all else. 

In his classic work, Habits of the Heart, noted sociologist Robert Bellah cited individualism as a basis for the American identity:

We believe in the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual.  Anything that would violate our right to think for our ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious.”

The pandemic would appear to threaten individualism’s lofty status.  How can an ethos so tied to individual freedoms serve the common good?      

Americans stand out on Individualism

By far, Americans are more likely than Europeans to believe they control their own destiny.  Nearly 60% of Americans disagreed with the statement, “Success in life is pretty much determined by forces outside our control.”  Only 37% of Europeans disagreed.      

Similarly, more so than Europeans, Americans connect hard work to success.  Almost 3 in 4 Americans say it is very important to work hard to get ahead in life compared to about 1 in 3 Europeans. 

Even a comparison to Germany, Europe’s wealthiest and most populous country, reveals a similar pattern – see figure below.  Germans simply do not embrace individualistic values. 

Individualism and Role of Government

The relative absence of individualism in Germany makes possible a larger role for government.    Comparatively few Germans are concerned about government restricting their life pursuits – 36%.  Rather, they are more likely to agree that government should play an active role in society and guarantee that no one is in need – 62%. 

Not so here.  When pursing life’s goals, nearly 6 in 10 Americans think it important that government not interfere.  Only about 1 in 3 think government should see too it that no one is in need – see figure below.    

These differences may be a factor – among several – that help explain German’s relative success in dealing with the pandemic.  A country that does not embrace individualism may find it easier to develop a potent national solidarity that supports centralized planing and determined execution  of pandemic policies.   

In contrast, Americans are suspicious of centralized authority and particularly distrustful of federal government.  This makes it difficult to prepare for and respond to crises – regardless of the party in power.  State governments enjoy notable power and discretion.  Crisis management is a cooperative effort between federal, state, and city governments.  The decentralized structure can be unwieldy, sluggish and prone to error.  Strong individualism encourages that structure.  

This is Government Power    

Ultimately, the pandemic showed Americans the robust powers of their own governments.  For the first time in history, all 50 states declared a major disaster which allowed access to federal funding.  And each state sought to protect its citizens by stripping away social and economic freedoms.  Another first.  

For a people that firmly believe they control their own fate, that hard work leads to success, and that cast a wary eye toward centralized authority, the government’s unprecedented actions were a revelation.  Overnight, the delicate balance between individualism and government power reconciled to the new reality.   

In Part 2, we’ll look at Democrat’s and Republican’s attachment to individualism and how that influences support for reopening the economy.  

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