There are two types of freedom — and the US optimized for the wrong one.

Measured in dollars, the US is the wealthiest country in the world by quite some considerable margin. If only it knew the value of empathy and true freedom as well.

I grew up in Europe (the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK) — but I’ve spent a lot of time in the US. A year as an exchange student in the 1990s and six years or so here in California. In my time here, I’ve been struck by some profound differences between Europe and the US: Empathy and Freedom.


Intergenerational Empathy

Life is hard. Life has always been hard. And “Life was so much harder when I was young” is a phrase that is not without fault. The difference between the US and Europe is what you do with that information. I like to think of it as inter-generational empathy. Not in a specific sense: Of course, parents want the best for their children, and they are willing to do everything they can to help their children along. In a general sense, however — on a societal level — there’s a huge gap.

In my mind, the European way of looking at things boils down to “I had a terrible time getting through this, so I am going to make sure nobody else has to.” In other words, culturally, there’s a drive towards building a better society — to making sure that hardships sustained by one generation don’t have to be re-lived and re-suffered by the next generation.

In the US, it feels a lot more like, “I had a terrible time getting through this, and so you should, too.” One example of that is the lack of centralized healthcare in the US. Nobody disagrees that if you have money, you can access some of the best health care in the world in the US. But on average, across the population, health care is worse than almost anywhere else in the world. More women die in childbirth in the US than in the rest of the developed world.

The question boils down to a simple thing: Trust. Do you trust your neighbor? Do you believe that you, personally, will be better off if the entire society you live in is better, on average?

In Europe, the feeling of kinship and collaboration runs deep — culturally — and as a result, you end up with a lot of public goods. Even if you own a car, people realize that cars don’t scale to massive morning commutes, and people travel by public transportation instead.

The difference is important, big, and has deep implications. The establishment of the National Health Service in the UK is one example. The establishment of reliable, cheap public transportation is another.

What causes this difference? Two different views on freedom.

A battle of two views on Freedom

Not all freedom is born equal.

In Europe, I often view freedom as freedom from something. Freedom from medical debt. Freedom from illnesses. Freedom from harassment. Freedom from getting shot when you’re trying to go to school. Freedom from others getting all up in your business. These freedoms are designed to protect you from others — while leaving as much space for you to do what you want as possible. In other words, your freedom ends where someone else’s freedom starts.

One example of this is the mandatory testing of automobiles in Europe. The german TUV test is particularly hardcore (and this YouTube video is a great example) — but it isn’t just the German love for rules and regulations: It is a trust and responsibility thing. When I’m on the road, I want to know that the other cars around me are maintained to a standard that makes them safe. You cannot, for example, drive around in a car without a hood over the engine. Your car will drive just fine without a hood — but it becomes a safety hazard for any pedestrians you might run into. It’s better to have them bounce off the hood and then be rushed to medical care (in an ambulance that costs nothing, to a hospital that will not send you a bill) than to be sucked into a whirring engine bay.

In the US, ‘freedom’ appears to do something else. It’s the freedom to do whatever the hell you want. Freedom to choose to have healthcare or not. Freedom to own a gun or not. Freedom to wear a mask, to gather in large groups, etc. As far as I can tell, as long as your car can run, you can keep it on the road. This is great because, without good public transportation systems, a car is often the only way you can get to work, regardless of what your job is. It’s also terrible because many of the cars on the roads wouldn’t pass a basic safety check — which has implications on society as a whole. Sure, you can get yourself to work without a hood over your engine, but the pedestrian you run into is now all the more gravely injured, and your car insurance company’s problem. They, in turn, may well not pay out if it turns out that your car has serious mechanical faults.

In the US, the approach seems to have freedoms to do things — and the freedoms and liberties of others be damned. “If I don’t want to wear a mask to protect myself from COVID, that should be my right” is a phrase that almost makes sense — until you consider that it’s not just about you. It’s also about all the other people you might infect, who might have comorbidities, lung conditions, or other contraindications that makes them more vulnerable to COVID.

Rewiring freedom

Of course, the concept of ‘freedom’ is culturally determined — and it runs pretty deep in our collective psyche.

“I have the freedom to own and carry a gun” is something that is perceived as being innate — and when someone tries to take one of those freedoms away, people get mighty twitchy. Even if there are some excellent reasons why personal gun-ownership might be a bad idea.

Measured in dollars, the US is the wealthiest country in the world by quite some considerable margin. If only it knew the value of empathy and true freedom as well.

“My children should have the freedom from being shot when they try to go to school” is far harder to argue with, but only in a society where the feeling of collective freedom and the sense of the greater good runs deep. You would have to agree that it is better to limit access to weapons than to take the risk of school shootings. You would have to agree that it’s better to regularly do safety tests on cars and accept that it will cost money to keep those cars in good running order than to risk the lives of other road users. By extension, you would have to agree that it’s better to invest in great public transportation systems that are competitive with car ownership in terms of price and convenience, compared to people driving around in $300 death-traps.

The US has been a dog-eat-dog world from its inception, a place where people had to scramble for survival. It makes sense that selfishness, in the form of only looking after yourself and your immediate family, became the norm. But this is no longer a country of gunslingers, gold prospectors, and wagons across the prairie. Measured in dollars, it is the wealthiest country in the world by quite some considerable margin. If only it knew the value of empathy and true freedom as well.

CEO of Konf, pitch coach for startups, enthusiastic dabbler in photography.

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