Sociological study: American individualism limits support for national health care

A new sociological study argues that the American cultural values of individualism and choice are behind the lack of support for national health care:

American obsession with individual rights and choice are killing any chance of a universal solution on health care, according to an analysis in the authoritative trade publication “Current Sociology” which argues that Europe’s health care is the model the U.S. should follow…

Other “western nations,” he said, are smarter on the issue because they have an all-for-one approach and aren’t obsessed with choice and individualism. “These countries have more communitarian- and solidarity-based value systems, their populations are much more willing to live with what Americans would see as an unfair system, in other words, one that sets limits on medical care for those with coverage,” said Blank…

“The U.S. is the prototype of an individualistic society. Although individual rights are emphasized in all western countries, in the US rights have been elevated to a status of supremacy over collective interests. Moreover, by rights Americans mean negative rights, and, as a result, they are hesitant to sacrifice perceived individual needs for the common good. Thus, there is no guaranteed universal coverage, but also no limits on what healthcare individuals can buy if they can afford it. This cultural tenet goes a long way to explain why the US expends so much more of its GDP on healthcare than other developed countries without providing universal access.”

My translation: who wants to tell individuals that they can’t get certain kinds of health care? Of course, not everyone has these options now but Americans like the idea that people could have these options. I assume opponents of European style health care would not call these traits individualism (which often has negative connotations) but rather people interested in liberty and freedom.

This also reminds me of research from scholars like Barry Schwartz (see The Paradox of Choice) that suggests having more choice can actually have negative consequences. Faced with too many options, some people can be paralyzed and feel worse after they make a choice compared to people choosing among more limited options. I hear tons of radio commercials for hospitals and medical centers for serious and not so serious conditions – do these all really lead to better medical outcomes in the long run?

At this point, it looks like there is some time to still debate the different value systems behind different health care proposals. I wonder, however, if there will be a turning point soon where economics or other factors (Supreme Court decisions?) will force the end of such ideological debates.

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