Why I am not an American

(H/T Matthew Yglesias) Damon Linker has a post up about Charles Murray’s definition of happiness:

But that’s not all. Because genuine happiness, for Murray, requires spending one’s life striving to overcome an endless series of challenges and obstacles, the lavish European safety net ensures that individual Europeans will never experience spiritual contentment or satisfaction. The assumption seems to be that a life of leisure — or at least a life with open access to health care, quality child care, generous unemployment insurance, and 4 – 6 weeks of guaranteed vacation time a year — will be an unhappy one. (It doesn’t sound half-bad to me, but I’m a Euro-loving liberal.)

Luckily, though, there is the American alternative (at least until Barack Obama gets through with us). Unlike coddled Europeans, Americans face the constant possibility of personal economic catastrophe. They work their lives away just to make ends meet, never knowing if they’ll be rewarded for their efforts by being fired by their employer or impoverished by medical bills after a life-threatening illness. And that constant insecurity is what opens up the possibility of genuine happiness for them, because if they manage to survive, let alone thrive, they’ll know that they did it on their own, without the help of the state, through heroic acts of self-reliance. This ideology — equal parts Christian masochism, Emersonian individualism, and Nietzschean striving — forms the core of American exceptionalism, according to Murray.”

Now obviously both Yglesias and Linker are Americans and both have deep disagreements with Murray. It’s impossible for anyone to say that the US all one way or another. US contains both San Francisco and Colorado Springs to use a geographic explanation. Yet Murray’s idea of how to be happy is implemented in many aspects of US government policy. Very expensive post-secondary education and a lack of universal healthcare seem to be a pair of obvious examples. Murray is praising this state of affairs probably in light of conservative fears that Barack Obama is on the cusp of changing all that.

As for me, I am more fearful of those that would have Canada more closely conform to Murray’s vision of a happy society. I would say I would be far less happy if I had an ongoing fear that I’d lose my medical insurance if I lost my job. There would be much more stress anyway, that’s for sure. Canada’s social safety net, much as it has been wilfully frayed in the past couple of decades by right-wingers, still gives me some comfort that I can get the help I need if I fall on hard times. The fact that the United States lacks these things makes it unlikely that I would ever give up my Canadian citizenship to become an American.

A final note: Now there is a reason I titled this post “Why I am not an American” and that is because this is, really, a choice of my own. I have no idea how to impose happiness on everyone. I would rather everyone have as much leeway as possible in deciding this. In other words, if Murray’s vision is what makes a great majority Americans happy, I have no desire to impede their happiness. I’m just saying, it’s not my choice.


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