Thoughts from Abroad is a periodic column written by an Exponent staff member studying abroad. The column serves to illustrate differences in culture, issues and perspectives observed by the way-faring student. Currently, Elise Byle is currently studying in Spain.
America, guardian of modern democracy. America, leader of the free world. These are the advantages of individualism that patriots tout proudly. America, home of the most expensive pharmaceuticals. America, land of the obese. These are the embarrassing realities brought on by the fierce protection of personal freedom.
Europeans are torn between what to ask me when they learn I am American. First, they express their shock that I am not excessively overweight. Then they pepper me with questions about New York and Los Angeles, telling me about their plan to road trip between the two. I have yet to be able to impress the size of the U.S. on any of them. My favorite jaw dropper is explaining that Montana is roughly the same size as Spain. Our country presents a paradox to the developed world. My peers disparage deep-fried foods but ask covetous questions about extravagant college parties. They aren’t sure whether to despise us for our excess or admire us for the results.
The U.S. is a great and powerful country. Statistically, that fact is undeniable. America has the world’s largest national economy, 1.6 times greater than the runner-up, China. It houses the largest market capital high-tech companies in the world. Ingenuity and innovation coming together under the capitalistic U.S. economy have provided the world with some of the greatest advances in technology of the past century. Since the founding of this country, it has been considered the land of opportunity. The true power of the American is choice. MSU on-campus residents have the option of checking their firearms into the dorms. In Europe, that is not a right or even on the table. The very concept of casual firearm use is foreign to them.
Americans see a direct correlation between opportunity and freedom. Any action of the government that encroaches on personal liberties is viciously opposed. “I have the right to do what I want, so long as my actions do not interfere with anyone else’s rights.” As is human nature, the citizens of the U.S. have taken this idea to the extreme. America is all about testing limits and the fact that the system plays into this idea has been the reason behind its success. But this can have negative repercussions as well.
The majority of Americans don’t want the government to impose taxes on fossil fuels, on soda, on food, because this is government-sanctioned interference into the personal right to drive a car and eat what they like. This in turn leads to abuse of the system. Buying more than is necessary because one can. Driving, rather than taking more environmentally responsible transportation, because it is one’s right. We as a nation continue down a path driven by individual liberties, relying on the innovation inspired by those liberties to save us. Rather than driving less, we bank on the eventual capitalistic drive towards more sustainable energy. Rather than consuming less, we count on medical advances to curb the impact of diabetes and obesity.
Unfortunately, the rate of self-destruction is faster than the development of the cure. That which made a great nation could also be the end of one. The idealized entrepreneur lacks the motivation for altruism. There is no reward in the system for putting the community before oneself. This lack of community consciousness is where the U.S. departs from the traditionally societal minded European countries.
In a Pew Global Attitudes survey in 2011, Americans and Europeans were asked which is more important: freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference, or for the state to guarantee that nobody is in need. Nearly 60 percent of Americans chose the former while 67 percent of Spanish citizens preferred the state to protect from need. Neither of those countries are perfect models of a thriving and happy society. Neither of them have stumbled upon the solution. I am inclined to believe that should they both stay the course, neither of them ever will.
From the very beginning, the American government was designed to encourage individual prosperity. In the end, the very thing that makes us great could be the double-edged sword that leads to our downfall. But if a true patriot has to go, what better way than death by excess freedom?