America The Unusual By John W. Kingdon

Essay, Research Paper

The government of the United States of America is very unique. While many Americans complain about high taxes and Big Brother keeping too close an eye, the truth is that American government, compared to most foreign democracies, is very limited in power and scope. One area American government differs greatly from others is its scope of public policy. Americans desire limited public policy, a result of several components of American ideology, the most important being our desire for individuality and equal opportunity for all citizens. There are many possible explanations for the reason Americans think this way, including the personality of the immigrants who fled here, our physical isolation from other countries, and the diversity of the American population.

The main ideal that keeps public policy in America extremely limited compared to other democracies is the desire for less government, a more limited government. The strong American beliefs in individualism and equality result in this desire for limited government, and thus limited public policy. American government programs are much less ambitious than those of other industrialized democratic nations. Programs in health, welfare, housing, transportaion, and many other areas are much smaller and less ambitious (Kingdon: 44). This is a direct result of the American desire for limited government. Americans don’t want large programs in these areas because they more or less fear big government and believe it is inefficient and wasteful. Americans lean towards a desire for equal oppurtunity as opposed to equal results, and thus believe government should stay clear and let people either succeed or fail on their own. They believe that successful individuals are simply the ones who achieved more with the opportunities they were given, and that it’s the job of the government to keep these opportunities equal for all, and not its job to see that everyone ends up successful. By taking the focus away from equality of results, America has become the victim of large income disparities as compared to other countries. In 1990, American households in the top decile of the income distribution had disposable incomes that were nearly six times greater than households in the bottom decile. Most other large industrialized countries showed upper incomes only between two and four times greater than the lower (Kingdon: 35). The U.S. also has one of the largest poverty rates of any industrialized country. The main reason behind this is that other countries offer very generous government programs affecting poverty, such as longer-lasting unemployment benefits, children’s allowances and subsidized child care facilities, higher old-age and disability benefits, and guaranteed health insurance for the entire population (Kingdon: 35). While citizens of other countries may question the morality of such huge inequalities of result, American citizens do not. “It’s part of American ideology to believe not that the rich should be whittled down to size, but rather that we can all aspire to be rich one day, or at least our children can” (Kingdon: 36). Thus Americans don’t believe government should even out financial or other resources, but merely ensure that everyone has the same chance to succeed if they wish to do so. Americans generally don’t want lavish government aid programs, as can be seen by their extreme displeasure of taxes. While citizens of other countries tolerate taxes as a way to fund government aid programs, Americans do not. Proposing plans that increase taxes have traditionally been disastorous for election candidates, almost always resulting in defeat (Kingdon: 44). This goes back to the American ideology of individualism. We believe we alone are entitled to our wealth, and that taxes are an invasion of our right to own and keep property (Kingdon: 44). We believe we were given the opportunity to succeed, we used these opportunities, and what we earned in doing so should not be given back to the collective community so that the lazy, who didn’t use their opportunities, can prosper. Congressmen, constantly seeking re-election from tax-hating constituents, are thus rewarded for keeping government public policy to a minimum. The American ideologies of individualism and equality of opportunity, producing an overall desire for limited government, keep the scope of government public policy very small.

There are many theories as to the origins of the American ideology of limited government, but a few key factors such as migration and diversity, which essentially set America down its initial path of government suspicion, seem to have had the greatest effect (Kingdon: 80). Other, possibly less influencial, factors include social structure, opportunity, and isolation from other countries (Kingdon: 57). To better understand the present state of American idealogy, we need to understand why America started down the path of government suspicion in the first place. To do this, we need to examine the reasons people first came to America. Most immigrants came here to escape unacceptable religious or political status in their homelands, while others came for economic reasons, or possibly against their will, as with the slaves. Those immigrants that came to dominate American society were those who came here of their own will, searching for a better life in the land of opportunity. It is fairly obvious that immigrants fleeing tyrannic rule or religious persecution would be very untrusting of any type of authority, especially government, and that many immigrants probably passed this suspicion of power to subsequent generations (Kingdon: 60). For example, Methodist in England left for America because they found adhorrent the power of the established Church of England, the taxes they had to pay for its maintenance, and the close alliance between religious and governmental authority (Kingdon: 60). Thus, they initially populated American borders with skepticism about authority, hierarchy, and obedience. It is also very likely that those coming to America to better their economic situation would probably be very concerned with their individual advancement, and thus very unhappy about taxation and government over-involvement. So these were essentially the ideals the country was founded on, and once a system is sent down an initial path it’s very difficult to set it in a different direction (Kingdon: 80).

The diversity of America was also important in the overall development of a limited government. Early colonies did want to unify as a single nation, but were careful not to surrender too much of their local government control to a central government. The original colonies were very different from one another, just as many states are today, and wanted to preserve their local set of values. They feared an overly powerful national government that would rob them of their individuality. This thinking led to a federal system where states are given substantial power over their own actions, the national government is effectively weakened, and individualism is preserved (Kingdon, 67).

America’s social past also had an impact on its individualist ideology. The fact that America lacks any type of feudal system in its past explains why there was little in the way of class conflict. With this lack of class conflict, Americans were much less likely to implement a government heavy in programs intended to balance the class difference (Kingdon:69). The working class in America were much more individualistic than the working class of former feudal systems, where a noble class dominated and often owned most or all of the working class property (Kingdon: 69). These American workers, much more individual, were far less likely to favor a big government system where individual rights are sacrificed for a more balanced social structure.

As far as Kingdon’s argument that America needs more pragmatism to moderate the commitment to American ideals, I would agree that this would result in a government that better served all Americans. However, I don’t think there is any possible way the United States can change the course it is on now. One problem that needs to be faced is the deterioration of the environment, and as Kingdon mentioned, increasing the gas tax would definitely cut down on the pollution. However, if a public official actually announced a new gas tax plan to cut down on emmissions, his political career would come to a crashing halt! Americans are too engrained with the ideal of individuality. Why should we care about how clean the air is when we have kids to feed and mortgages to pay? The focus is on the individual, not the community.


Kingdon, John W. America The Unusual. Boston: Worth Publishers, Inc. 1999.


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