In the era of COVID-19 and the Trump administration, admiration for the U.S. is from time to time met with a mix of disbelief and incomprehension. Understandable as that may be sometimes, for me on July 4th the time has come to write down why I still love the United States, unconcerned of any political turmoil. And as I feel that also the Americans themselves need a frankly reminder of the upsides of their country from time to time, I wrote the following text in English.
Sometimes, at least in retrospective, profound changes in attitude or opinion can be tracked down to single moments. In my case, my view of the United States was fundamentally changed forever by one woman responding to a question with a single word. It was a couple of years ago, when I watched a documentary on German TV that focused on the downsides of American life. At one point, the reporters interviewed a woman in the late-20s who was not only jobless, but also clearly haggard from years of drug addiction. As the reporters asked her who is to blame for her situation, she didn’t need long to assign the responsibility and responded: “Myself.” That simple dialogue made me, back then still in school, question a belief that was so natural for me that I had somehow never been critical about it before: The belief that it’s the duty of the state to make sure that everyone has “a good life”. That philosophy had been key to my political thinking, unconcerned of all the trouble it obviously creates: Why should it be the state’s responsibility to run its citizens lives? Why would anyone have the right to define what a “good life” means for someone else? Why would the state be given the right to interfere in someone’s life more than is necessary to protect the interests of other citizens? To all of these questions, many political concepts didn’t have an answer since they had just skipped them in their thinking. And these problems continue to be skipped by a wide range of political parties and movements, not only by leftists or so called “democratic socialists”, but even in the middle of the political spectrum.
However, as I had learned from the documentary, it seemed there was a country where that attitude is different: The United States of America. As soon as you look at the U.S. from the perspective of individual freedom, the absence of European-style social security systems is no longer some failure of the state to care for its citizens, but rather the result of a pretty simple “deal” between the state and its citizens: You are encouraged to go your way. If you succeed, the credit is all yours – if you fail, you’re the one to figure out a solution. That philosophy also causes a pleasant side effect: Since the state (and thus, society) doesn’t bear the costs of failure (e.g. through a social security system), the stigma that goes along with ill success in many European societies is completely missing in the U.S. If you fail – well, try again. Only such a concept of society could open the door to the incredible amount of innovation that can be seen on U.S. soil.
All of that leads to the following conclusion: Apart from the uncountable scientific, technological and societal achievements that the world owes the United States, one key ideological achievement will always stick out: The idea that individual plans matter more than collective interests. There is no country in the world where the principle of individual freedom is embedded to such a bold degree in the very foundations of the state. And that is what makes the United States unique for me. Don’t get me wrong, there is lot more to love about the U.S.: The landscape, the people, the music and the movies, the trucks and the skyscrapers, the military and last but not least the food. But most of this applies to many other countries too – China has terrific food as well, yet its politics and society make it (for me) one of the world’s most unattractive places to live at.
But the fact that the “United” States aren’t so much a united entity, but rather a collection of an incredible variety of individual ideas and plans how to live, how to run a business or how to enjoy yourself, is the key to my admiration for the country. Yes, there are downsides of placing so much trust in individual decision-making, but greater opportunities are always accompanied by greater risks. However, the kind of encouragement that you receive in the U.S. for chasing your dreams is unprecedented and unrivaled.
If you dig deeper into what that really means, you will see that it soon becomes way less relevant who is the current President or whether you appreciate or reject the Supreme Court’s latest ruling. As long as you are willing to do your own thing and go your own path, the majority of Americans is on your site.
And to me, that is certainly enough to say: I love the United States of America.
Happy July 4th!
Head picture: Fabian Barth.