After nearly three years of living in Ireland, the thrill and curiosity of not living in a superpower has dulled a bit, but still fascinates me. On a daily basis the need not to compete with everyone, and the need to assert dominance have been replaced with a much more humble worldview. But it struck me recently that, for me, the biggest change that I’ve noticed is how nice it is to live somewhere where the obsession over individual rights is not society’s dominant priority.
From its gun laws and healthcare centered on those who can afford it (rather than those who need it), to tax breaks overtly focused on making the rich richer, the United States’ “Pursuit of Happiness” doctrine has become the individual pursuit of as much money and possessions as possible. Full stop.
While the U.S. has long prided itself on being a land of rugged individualists, more and more that longing to go out and work hard to carve out a modest, but respectable, life for yourself has turned to petulant demands that individuals never be forced to sacrifice any of their hard-earned wealth in the name of the broader social good. Try getting one of the self-proclaimed one-percenters (America’s upper class) to willingly pay more tax for the sake of improving schools and public infrastructure. God forbid they kick in for healthcare for the underprivileged – which they’re already paying for in other, more expensive ways.
And the U.S. system seems rigged to perpetuate itself. Most Americans are not willing to do anything that might inhibit the endless acquisition of wealth, because, well, “Why tax the wealthy? That could be me. I could be rich one day”.
Admittedly this is all a big generalization. But, watching Irish and European reactions to the childish bickering that passes for politics and public discourse in the U.S., it’s hard not to compare the two sides of the Atlantic. Granted, in many ways Ireland (and much of Europe) now seem to aspire to the lofty heights of American individualism (yet another American export). But, overall, the Irish and European cultures seem to focus less on the individual and demonstrate systemic, institutional/cultural-level compassion for those in need more than in America.
Witness, the “concession” rates for plays, concerts and the like in many European countries. If you have no money in the U.S., it’s assumed that you’ve done something wrong, and, because you’ve not “worked hard enough” you don’t deserve to have any fun or entertainment. In Ireland, and many other European countries, venues offer a reduced ticket price (a “concession rate”) for people who are out of work, or significantly disadvantaged. And there seems to be no stigma attached to availing yourself of the rate if you are in truly in need.
When I ask ticket takers how often they think people take advantage of the rate who shouldn’t, abuse of the system seems such an alien concept that they were hard pressed to answer. And even if there were the occasional bit of cheating going on, they don’t believe that makes those who genuinely need the concession rate any less deserving.
It would be fine, if one man’s pursuit of “more” didn’t affect others. But it has a cumulative effect. Man’s competitive nature guarantees that in an individual-based society everyone eventually starts fighting for more and more. Pretty soon, whether you need a giant house or not, you aspire to one, because that’s what people do. And, somehow, if you don’t always want more, you are not, by God, trying hard enough (and aren’t one of us).
For immigrants the question of individual rights (and a focus on the individual and taking care of yourself) is crucial. It speaks to how much of a safety net you may/may not enjoy in your new home. Will you be required to pay for your own healthcare, retirement, and other “benefits? If the group covers you to some degree, do those benefits accrue immediately, and if not, how quickly do you become part of the group? Are you prepared to deal with that?
If you’ve lived your life in a society that has strong social protections, and a sense of the group looking out for individuals in need, are you strong enough to stand up for yourself in your new home? Will you demand things for yourself in the ways that are required in a society that is “all for one”? With all that it implies, are you truly prepared to elevate the rights of the individual above all others?
If you aren’t willing to make those sacrifices, it’s important to honestly assess whether you are willing to sacrifice those beliefs or change your fundamental nature when society demands it of you.
Things to look forward to in upcoming posts:
* Renting Abroad, Home Maintenance and Property Management in a Foreign Country