November 23, 2011

The American-Western European Values Gap

58 vs. 35

Nearly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say that having the freedom to pursue life’s goals without state interference is more important than the state ensuring that nobody is in need. About a third (35%) of Americans say it is more important that the state ensure nobody is in need. Western Europeans hold the opposite view.

American opinions differ considerably from those of Western Europeans when it comes to views of individualism and the role of the state. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) Americans believe that it is more important for people to be free to pursue their goals without interference from the state; just 35% say it is more important for the state to play an active role in society so as to guarantee that nobody is in need.

In contrast, at least six-in-ten people in Spain (67%), France (64%), Germany (62%) and 55% in Britain say it is more important for the state to ensure that nobody is in need; about four-in-ten or fewer consider being free from state interference a higher priority.

In the U.S., Britain, France and Germany, views of the role of the state divide significantly across ideological lines. In the U.S., three-quarters of conservatives say that individuals should be free to pursue their goals without interference from the state; just 21% of conservatives say it is more important for the state to ensure that nobody is in need. Among American liberals, approximately half would like the state to play an active role in helping the needy while 42% prefer a more limited role for the state.

Those on the political right in Britain, France and Germany are also more likely than those on the left to prioritize individual freedom without state interference. However, unlike in the U.S., majorities of those on the political right in France (57%) and Germany (56%) favor an active role for the state, as do more than four-in-ten (45%) conservatives in Britain.

American opinions about the role of the state also vary considerably across age groups. Americans younger than 30 are almost evenly divided on the question, with 47% prioritizing the freedom to pursue their goals while 46% say it is more important for the state to ensure that there is nobody in need. Among older Americans, however, a significant majority — about six-in-ten — consider being free to pursue one’s goals a higher priority than the ensuring that nobody is in need. No such age gap is evident in the four Western European countries surveyed. Read More