Do you think that personal success results mainly from your own hard work or is it due to forces beyond your control? If you’re like 77% of Americans, you believe that success comes from hard work and personal responsibility. That shared belief cuts across all classes. It doesn’t really matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. No matter how you segment the American population, a majority of most every segment believes that hard work is the key to success.
That’s what known as a social contract. We may disagree on lots of hot button issues — gun control, gay marriage, abortion, deficits, etc. — but we fundamentally agree on how to be successful. We may think of ourselves as a fractured body politic but, on some very significant issues, we’re as close to unanimous as a country can be.
As Lexington points out in a recent column, that’s an important point to keep in mind. It’s also an important difference between America and Europe. When Pew Research asked the same question across Europe, they found a distinct north/south split. Northern Europeans — especially Britons and Germans — agreed that hard work is the key to success. Southern Europeans — especially French, Greeks, and Italians were more fatalistic — success is not because of you but because of the system. In other words, it’s undeserved. By extension, it should be shared with others.
In America, we look to Europe for both positive and negative examples. They’re sort of like us and, therefore, we should be able to learn from their experience. We can debate the merits of the euro or of austerity or of massive bailouts. But Lexington suggests that we’re missing the point. Europeans have fundamentally different world views and, as a result, they just plain don’t like each other. Lexington writes that “…America should fear the spread of the crudest poison paralysing Europe: mutual dislike between citizens.”
It seems so obvious. If we continually demonize each other, then the social contract begins to fray. But that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re behaving more and more like Europeans. As Lexington puts it, Americans are developing an “ill-concealed contempt for an undeserving other: the feckless poor, the immoral rich …” and concludes: “Mutual dislike is the dirty secret that best explains European paralysis. American politicians have no business stoking it in their far more ambitious union.”
Let’s remember what we do agree on in America. Let’s not balkanize ourselves into another Europe. A little mutual respect would go a long way right about now.