Cultural Divergences of the Western Philosophy

Bryn Lindblad

Throughout our recent class discussions we have compared the cultures that result from a Western philosophy with those of an Eastern philosophy to analyze how each culture did or did not act as an impetus for technological advancement and environmental destruction.  We generally concluded that the deficiency of natural resources in Europe resulted in an expansionist attitude.  Europeans were motivated to develop better technologies to cope with adverse environmental factors and also to expand their resource base by extending their potential to trade with other territories through exploration and colonization.  We contrasted this Western philosophy of an ever-present potential to improve upon society with an Eastern philosophy of contentedness with the way of nature and the resultant self-sufficient way of life.

      This general East-West cultural distinction is somewhat useful in analyzing technological innovation and proliferation, but I believe that a distinction between the European and American cultures is also crucial to understand the differences within the Western philosophy of current attitudes towards technology, the environment, and government regulation thereof.  In this paper I attempt to explain how micro- and macro-evolutionary factors have caused Americans and Europeans to have different political and economic ideologies which influence their attitudes towards the use of natural resources.  Collectively, Americans are much more individualistic and so the scope of government regulation in environmental matters is much more limited.  As a whole, Europeans are much more concerned about the total welfare of society and so they welcome government intervention to make matters more equitable.

      On a micro-evolutionary level, people first fled from Europe to the "New World' seeking a relief from religious persecution.  Not long thereafter colonists became frustrated with high taxes and sought political sovereignty by revolting against the "Old World" government.  When they succeeded in winning the revolutionary war, colonists set up a new American government and constitution with the intent of maximizing individuals' freedom and limiting the power of the government.  The American constitution aims to prevent the government from becoming too intrusive into private matters and to protect private property rights.  This constitutionally-rooted value of freedom plays a part in explaining why American environmental regulation remains limited and contentious.

      Unlike European governments, which have more recently been uprooted and restructured as the result of wars and revolutions, the American government is very stable and will likely continue to be based off the above-mentioned eighteenth-century principles.  The U.S.'s low population density and decentralized government make the threat of a revolution very unlikely.  Also, the well-established two-party system and absence of proportional representation further stabilize American politics and make it highly unlikely that a third party will be able to obtain any sort of power in the American legislative branch. [i]  The three branches of the American government inherently exercise checks and balances on each other throughout the many steps of the policy-making process.  This means that successful, drastic policy initiatives are few and far between and that American environmental policy will likely continue to follow a laissez-faire approach with the intent of protecting individuals' freedom.

      On a macro-evolutionary scale, the expanses of unclaimed and available resources in America (partly due to its short history) generated an American frontier mentality of individualism.  This mentality produced a culture that encouraged Americans to tame the forces of nature to suit their own needs and wants and in doing so they would improve the infrastructure of the country as a whole.  Also, since natural resources were so bountiful in America, there was a common perception that everybody had an equal opportunity to prosper and that it was not appropriate for the government to interfere in order to ensure equality of outcomes. [ii]  This attitude was largely a product of the Protestant work ethic - that hard work earns success.  In the U.S., this belief still prevails and causes many Americans to have inflated perceptions of the upward mobility within their country. [iii]

            Although all of America's natural resources have been claimed as property by this point, there remains a strong belief that an equality of opportunity still exists.  Despite the disparity of wealth distribution, the American standard of individualism and the resulting economic framework of profit-driven capitalism stand in strong opposition to an interventionist role of government.  To embody these principles, the U.S. has low taxes which make wealth redistribution minimal and social insurance systems meager.  The American government also does little to protect domestic industries; this works to stimulate a competitive economic system.  Government intervention in industrial affairs is limited to subsidizing agriculture and national defense (which have been deemed crucial industries with regards to national security in the case of international conflict) and regulating against monopolies. [iv]  By disallowing monopolies, the American government encourages competition which necessitates companies to either increase productivity or be innovative to create improved products in order to stay competitive. [v]  Often increased productivity has been achieved by technological innovation to advance physical capital. 

            In effect, by encouraging technological innovation while at the same time only minimally regulating the resultant environmental impacts, the American government has consequentially provoked widespread environmental degradation.  While some Americans might object to this consequence, the majority would oppose any further government regulation since intervention would inhibit the exercise of individual goals, restrict personal liberties, and make firms less competitive in the global market. 

            Europeans differ from Americans in their high regard for equity and social welfare and their willingness to sacrifice personal liberties and profits to realize these social principles.  Europeans acknowledge that collective cooperation is necessary to achieve these goals and so they empower large governments to actualize their collective responsibility.  These differences may be the products of dissimilar political histories that continue to have enduring impacts on culture and conceptions of the proper role of government. 

Europe's concern for social welfare issues has likely been heightened by its long history of class struggle and political uprising.  Historical experience has shown Europeans that the stability of their government and economy are not guaranteed but must be ensured by appeasing the political priorities of the masses.  Additionally, the long tradition of royalty, hereditary status, and wealth inheritances has made Europeans more accustomed to thinking of society in terms of class.  In contrast to Americans, Europeans believe that a person's poor economic standing is not necessarily the fault of the individual but more likely due to the societal structure in which he/she operates.  Europeans' greater familiarity with and acknowledgement of class inequities makes them more willing to let the government address inequity issues by implementing social safety nets and redistributing income to the less fortunate. [vi]

Furthermore, since Europe has a longer history of consumption of natural resources it has been quicker to appreciate the finiteness of these resources.  Europe's higher population density places a higher constraint on natural resource usage.  This has lead Europeans to also hold their governments responsible for managing the consumption of natural resources in a just way.   Europeans consider the environment to be a public good which the government should provide without excluding anybody.  To regulate the consumption of its natural resources, European governments have imposed stringent environmental standards on industries and private citizens.  In order to comply with these standards and maintain a profitable level of productivity, industries have been spurred to invest in innovative measures to develop technology that requires less consumption of natural resources.  Since the European political economy is driven more by measures of equity and social welfare than by considerations of profit maximization, it is within the government's role to address negative production externalities such as environmental degradation.  By imposing taxes on units of pollution produced, industries have economic incentives to reduce the damage they cause to the environment.  Because Europeans are more willing to let their governments interfere in social and economic affairs, Europe's environmental resources are now strictly regulated and looked after.

Dissimilar political histories may not account for the entire difference between American and European cultures, but it likely does explain the rift in fundamental beliefs that has resulted in a major divergence within the Western philosophy.  A thorough understanding of the cause of this culture difference is useful in understanding the different political and economic ideologies that currently influence technological innovation and treatment of the environment in America and Europe.

[i] Alesina, Alberto.  "Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?".  (2001).  pg. 188.

[ii] Alesina, Alberto.  "Why Doesn't the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?".  (2001).  pg. 222.

[iii] Rifkin, Jeremy.  "The New Land of Opportunity", The European Dream.   (2004).  pg. 40.

[iv] Gilpin, Robert.  "National Systems of Political Economy", Global Political Economy.  pg. 154.

[v] Friedman, Thomas L.  The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization.  (2000).  pg. 11.

[vi] Rifkin, Jeremy.  "The New Land of Opportunity", The European Dream.  (2004).  pg. 43.

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last updated 1/25/06