Thursday, November 23, 2006

American Individualism and the Tradition of Giving

According to Thomas Patterson, a nation's political culture reflects "the characteristic and deep-seated beliefs of the people." The American political culture is unique in its emphasis on individualism. "Individualism is a commitment to personal initiative, self-sufficiency, and material accumulation. This principle upholds the superiority of a private-enterprise economic system and indicates the idea of the individual as the foundation of society."

I recalled our culture of individualism in reading Mortimer Zuckerman's editorial this week at U.S. News and World Report. Zuckerman notes that American individualism and the sense of community support the nation's tradition of giving:

We are blessed by our history. The early immigrants came mostly from countries with a strong, central government, a dominant church, and an energetic aristocracy. Central government assumed the responsibility for the public good, with its costs underwritten by taxes. America, by contrast, was a young, frontier society with no tradition of strong, central government, with no state religion and no established aristocracy. When American pioneers wanted to raise a church or a school or a hospital in their new communities, they had to build it themselves. One farmer couldn't put up a barn by himself, so individual farmers called on friends and neighbors, and when they needed help, the favor was promptly returned. The party the farmer threw for his neighbors after the barn was completed lives on in the wonderfully American phrase "raising the roof."

Other rich countries have a far higher proportion of hospitals, libraries, and universities-all funded by the state. This reduces the sense of community. The commonplace cry is "Why don't they do something about it?" instead of "Why don't we do something about it?" Many Europeans believe that simply paying taxes absolves them of any further responsibility to their fellow citizens. It is an attitude that is beginning to change somewhat, given the American successes-the "thousand points of light" that the elder President Bush commended. But European governments vary from the stingy to the downright mean in their attitude to philanthropy. Charities in Britain, for instance, have recently been told by the Charity Commission that their endowments could be seized: You can be sure the British Scrooge won't be funding the kinds of imaginative ventures the private donors did.

Of course, government has hardly been rendered redundant in the United States, but its role in relation to philanthropy is a positive one. Our government, irrespective of political control, encourages giving, with indirect subsidies and tax exemptions for cultural institutions and tax relief for individuals. This jibes with the American instinct for individualism. We don't want government to make all moral or aesthetic judgments. But studies have shown that the tax relief Americans enjoy from giving doesn't explain the impulse to give. Happily, that is something deeply ingrained in our national psyche.

It has to be admitted that this system works well for middle- and upper-income Americans who can take advantage of tax deductions and arts subsidies but functions less well for lower-income groups. That's why our universities, hospitals, and art museums are among the world's finest, while healthcare and preschool education for poor Americans are below European standards. Here, still, is a challenge to the American spirit we celebrate as we give thanks for our blessings.
Zuckerman notes that there's an unwritten contract at the heart of American capitalism that those who gain fabulous wealth share it with those less fortunate. We see this gift of giving in everything from medical research to arts and culture and scholarships to disadvantaged minorities. Zuckerman mentions the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as an extraordinary example of this tradition. Also, check out Business Week's list of top corporate donors in 2006.

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