2004 October 11 Monday
Europeans Versus Americans On Personal Control Of Destiny

George Will has an interesting essay "Why America Leans Right" where he explores why Americans are more conservative and libertarian than Europeans.

Europe, post-religious and statist, is puzzled -- and alarmed -- by a nation where grace is said at half the family dinner tables. But religiosity, say Micklethwait and Wooldridge, "predisposes Americans to see the world in terms of individual virtue rather than in terms of the vast social forces that so preoccupy Europeans." And: "The percentage of Americans who believe that success is determined by forces outside their control has fallen from 41 percent in 1988 to 32 percent today; by contrast, the percentage of Germans who believe it has risen from 59 percent in 1991 to 68 percent today." In America, conservatives much more than liberals reject the presumption of individual vulnerability and incompetence that gives rise to liberal statism.

It would be very interesting to see results of doing this same survey on people from countries in other parts of the world. I'm going to guess that Middle Easterners hold views closer to those of the Germans than to Americans on the question of whether they have individual control of their destiny. Though the Middle Easterners may cite different reasons than the Germans for why they do not feel in control.

It would also be interesting to see polling by ethnic and racial group in America on this question. My guess is that whites have a stronger belief in their control of their own destiny than blacks and Hispanics. I would especially like to see numbers on Hispanics broken out by how many generations their families have been in the US.

How will American and European attitudes toward their ability control their lives change in the future? Will advances in understanding of genetics and the human brain make people see themselves as more determined by their environment and genes and hence less in control of their lives? Or will the ability to use biotechnology to reshape one's body and brain cause people to think they are in even more control of their destinies? Perhaps popular reactions come in phases with the initial greater understanding of genetic influences and environmental influences decreasing the belief in free wil. But then later the new knowledge will be harnessed to develop technologies to make it possible to improve our physical and cognitive abilities and then these technologies will cause a shift back of the pendulum to reestablish the belief that we are each in control of ourselves.

Will's source for the numbers he is quoting is the new book The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America by Economist writers John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2004 October 11 01:48 PM  Europe and America

Stephen said at October 11, 2004 5:20 PM:

This kind of feels wrong - not sure why, but I'll pick away at it and see if a theme develops...

It seems to me that rather than seeing Europe as merely being post-religious, a more widely applicable description would be 'post-modern' - in the sense that there are no absolutes, everything is a shade of gray, proof rather than belief etc. I think that a member of a post-modern society will therefore likely give more weight to external factors when asked whether they "...believe that success is determined by forces outside their control...", and only one of those 'external factors' being considered by a post-modern person is likely to be 'the government'.

The claim that Europe is statist while the USA isn't, is also jarring. If 'statist' assumes that a person looks to an external authority for direction, then isn't being religious the ultimate example of statism? If not being statist "...predisposes Americans to see the world in terms of individual virtue rather than in terms of the vast social forces that so preoccupy Europeans...", then how can you claim not to be 'statist' while at same time identifying whole nations as evil? How can you not be 'statist' and at the same time demand that an entire country be either "for us or against us"? How can you not be 'statist' while claiming that the Christian bible is the ultimate law? Where is the room for 'individual virtue' in any of these positions? In reality, I think the positions betray an inculcated statism in the USA possibly of an intensity not seen since the 1950s (albeit at that time in a different form).

Luke Lea said at October 11, 2004 6:28 PM:

My guess is that people with more than average talent and ability have a greater sense of control than those without. I sometimes wonder if libertarians -- or at least that variety of libertarian who thinks that the natural distribution of income in a market economy is also somewhow the best -- aren't like a poker player who wants to set the stakes of the game after he has had a peek at his cards?

John S Bolton said at October 12, 2004 2:14 AM:

Searching for 'mexican fatalism familism' turns up a number of references to such beliefs. It is considered a serious enough problem that medical studies investigate the effect of such attitudes on early diagnosis treatment and more. This wouldn't likely be done if significant differences affecting these medical events weren't being commonly encountered.

gene berman said at October 12, 2004 6:16 AM:

Stephen: The comparison you draw is entirely invalid. What is being discussed is the propensity of (in this case Europeans) to view themselves merely as part of a collective--a mass of undifferentiated entities--managed for their own good by others who actually are presumed to be more knowledgeable as to what that good might be; entirely consistent with that view, the opinions, wants, etc. of the individuals concerned are presumed of minor importance to those in positions of authority or of managership under that authority, even though such authority derives from the vote--the consent--of the governed. Though the article discusses this view as characteristic of Europeans, it is not "European," per se, but collectivist--found everywhere in varying degree. If one were to seek a "grain of truth" in your analysis, it would be that the collectivist does seem to endow the state with qualities and authority of a god-like character.

The entire conception of the relationship of the individual to the state is different to an American (or at least to most Americans--we have plenty of collectivist-leaning members of our society). In our society, though we must obey the law, the law (and the state charged with its
enforcement) are presumed instruments of our individuality. There is a presumption that, as long as we've not broken that law (in the main instituted for the prevention crimes against persons and their property), the state and its functionaries shall not interfere with our personal or cooperative efforts to achieve our goals ( to which the Constitution refers as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"). A member of a religion--no matter which or to what degree--is no different than any other individual in the respects referred to; he chooses his religion as an individual and it is of no (political) consequence what his particular belief (or lack) might be except as it might influence his actions with respect to the law applying to all.

The differences described are not of race, religion, or actually even of political system. Indeed, most of Europe ostensibly subscribes to very much the same sort of representative democracy as do we; and, as a matter of fact, our own "system" has, albeit slowly and over a process visible for at least 150 years, moved closer to that prevalent in more collectivized areas and further from that which prompted the
young French visitor, DeToqueville ("Democracy in America") to predict, nearly 175 years ago (at a time when there were only 25 states
and most of them crude frontier areas) to predict that no power on earth could prevent this country from becoming, within a century, the most powerful economic and military force in existence.

Almost the entire difference--maybe even its entirety--lies in mens' minds. "Systems" by which and under which men live are but a reflection of those mens minds. That the values (and system) expressed originally in our Constitution are, indeed "best" is nowhere better
evidenced than in the clamor from virtually every part of the world for the material benefits enjoyed by our masses. What we have and take for granted, they can also have in abundance--when they change their minds and reject the collectivist mindset. And, conversely, we shall only suffer relative decline the more that mindset gains sway among our own populace.

gene berman said at October 12, 2004 8:08 AM:


You're quite right to suppose that everyone (not just the libertarian or more naturally-endowed) would like to get a peek or some other indication of his own relative strength in the playing of a game or the entering into a contest before setting the stakes dependent on the outcome.

But you are ignoring (actually, my familiarity with your posts leads me to the impression that you are forgetting or, perhaps, vascillating between learned convictions and doubts besetting them) much of what is actually important (because it is real) and what is less important (because it is merely an appearance only partially obscuring reality).

The poker (or other card) game bears no relationship whatever to the market or to the ordinary activities of life. In pursuing this lack of analogous character, I do not refer specifically to the difference (of which I am sure you are aware) nowadays popularly referred to as that between one (a game) which is "zero-sum" and some other kind. And no more than relatively fundamental economic principles need enter into any explanation by which full understanding may be achieved. The first thing that must be understood is that ordinary life (and by that I mean particularly the portion of life spent in the economic activities of producing and consuming) is not a game. In the main, games are diversion and entertainment, though for some they may be more--methods for bodily or mental conditioning, means for distinguishing competitive prowess, and even, for some, an occupation, a way to make a living primarily through furnishing entertainment for others. Only
for the relatively small number of people engaged as "professional gamblers" in winning money from those they perceive as less skillful at their chosen specialty, does your anlogy have any relevance and, insofar as the game is honest, it takes the form of each of the players trying to assess their strength in relation to potential competitors.

But economic life is otherwise. It is essentially a cooperative effort in which the goal of each is to make just that contribution to the total production for which all other contributors are likely to give him the greatest amount of what they have produced. Indeed, each individual's assessment of his own abilities with respect to choice among the various possible contributions to be made is of paramount importance
to all. The production total is reduced by each failure or insufficiency in such choice; but the individual is given the very greatest incentive to chose as properly as possible: his own welfare is the one most affected by such choice.

There is a principle in biology referred to as "specialization of function" or words to that effect and that word, "function" is, for the most part, interchangeable--synonomous--with the human concept of "purpose" (or ends) and the various entities of existence which confront the individual have varying relevancies--as "means"--for the achievement of those ends. We--and everything else--are all means to the ends of others and they for we. The differences in those entities are appreciated (by each) as to their fitness or suitability for the achievement of those ends. Some materials, some pieces of land, and some men are more or less suitable--or entirely unsuitable--for the achievement of one or another end. We test materials for their strength or other qualities, evaluate land for its agricultural yield, panoramic view, etc., and the contributions of others to our welfare by our buying the product they have themselves chosen to produce on the market. There are other ways to make such an evaluation of the contribution of other to our own welfare. But all fall short of the "market" method in two important (and related) ways. First, they require coercion to steer such men away from the choice they would have made otherwise under the pressure of the market. The market is, indeed, a relentless pressure on all and on some far more than others. But no other method subjects men to less pain for greater potential reward. Indeed, all other methods require actual or legal enslavement--their direction into avenues of production determined by other than themselves under only market pressure--and in most of those cases, the application of physical restraint and draconian penalties to obtain even a fraction of the production usual in market societies. Further, the simple fact of the number of otherwise-productive individuals who effort must be directed into the restraint and oversight of their productive fellows and in the distributive management of the lower output is, in itself, a severe (crippling, actually) burden on the entirety. What I am explaining to you now has been relatively well understood by at least some economists on a theoretic level for close to 150 years, has been extraordinarily well-explicated by those referred to as "Austrians" since the late 1800s, set down in a form (Mises, 1920 and subsequently)
to which no significant scholarly rebuttal has ever been offered, and illustrated, for good measure--for those for whom theoretic arguments are "nothing but words"-- by the almost lockstep arrangement of various national economies in a prosperity hierarchy according to their orientation to the "market" and capitalism or lack thereof--and, stunningly (according to Mises' prediction) the simple collapse of the former USSR.

It would be nice, perhaps, Luke, if everyone understood economics. Perhaps most would then be able to shed much of their envy, hostility, etc. and live more peaceably and happily. The fact is, though, that most don't and, perhaps (most likely) never will. But, it is, perhaps, an important (and optimistic) human characteristic that it is not necessary for everyone to understand economics--just as not everyone need know very much of chemistry or financial accounting--nor could, given the propensity for specialization of effort. My point is proven simply by the fact that, in the main, people do actually live as though they had some understanding on a primitive level, at least--otherwise, how to account for the enormous development of relatively peaceful exchange, production, procreation, geographic penetration, and technological progress? People are always subject to error but have an inwrought capacity to continue in those ways which have resulted in their (or others') past success, although they do not always identify correctly in just what the practices have been that brought the desired result.
You might say that the guy who first perceived this clearly put it into words commonly regarded as a benediction but which, when viewed properly, are much more in the way of prescription: "Peace on earth to men of good will."

Wes Ulm said at October 15, 2004 8:03 PM:

I don't buy George Will's thesis here, not even in the slightest-- seems like stylish-sounding journalistic guano to me. There are some ways in which religiosity as manifested in the USA can indeed emphasize and encourage the notion that one's destiny is in one's own hands; such was a theme of my own Presbyterian upbringing. OTOH there are also some religious strains in the US that claim that everything is in God's hands, and that human beings have no control over events. This is especially true for groups like the Dispensationalists, ultra-evangelists and some fundamentalists (usually Protestant sects), generally the theological descendants of John Darby's teachings-- they claim that people have no control over their destiny, that God proposes and disposes. This fatalistic belief is at the heart of their teachings. Just check out the books on Armageddon and the Rapture by e.g. Tim LaHaye or Hal Lindsey, or see e.g.


(Notice that links above are from both sides of the political aisle and some religious critics, and they're more than a bit concerned about Dispensationalism's implications for policy.)

The very essence of many of these quintessentially American belief systems is that people have no control-- it's all in God's hands, pre-decided and unfolding. Yes, these are extreme interpretation and the vast majority of even evangelical Christians don't concur with them (some of the harshest critics of the dispensationalist claims are other Christian theologians). Nevertheless, there are many millions of adherents here, so much so that they're able to affect US foreign policy-- they're adamantly opposed to an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution or nuclear disarmament, and most want a big Middle Eastern war in that region. (This, incidentally, is why not a few people in other countries consider the US to be very dangerous. I think these sorts of views are in a small minority, but nonetheless it a vocal one.) You'd probably be quite hard-pressed to find these crazy, self-destructive, belittling memes in other countries. So in some respects Americans are far more likely than Europeans to turn away from the ideals of the Enlightenment, to believe that people have little control over their own destinies. Will traps himself in the traditional fallacies and presuppositions about American belief systems w/o delving into details, and he really has no idea what he's talking about. For every example he cites of Americans claiming that they believe people control their own destinies, I could probably cite two or three more examples (like the one above) that suggest the opposite to be the case. This is hardly a simple matter to discern.

Randall Parker said at October 18, 2004 1:56 PM:


Predestination is, yes, a small minority belief among American Christians. Therefore I do not see those people as contradicting Will's argument. Most Protestant denominations see individuals as moral agents who have free will.

As for those "not a few people in other countries": I do not have any links available but I've seem survey data on beliefs in various superstitions done on populations in other countries (including Western European countries). I recall being shocked and appalled by the level of superstitious belief in some European countries.

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