The important cultural analysis by Geert Hofstede, conducted in the 1970s and '80s, and impacting many research paradigms since, concluded that the United States is the most individualistic culture in the world. However, there are a handful of Western countries that approximate our American rugged individualism, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. Along with the U.S., these countries share a legacy of freedom and liberty. The state of New Hampshire tells us, “Live Free or Die,” but this motto reflects the heritage of our entire Western experience.
Although we have much to learn from the rich traditions across the rest of the world, politicians would be foolish to ignore our traditions of individualism. Leaders in Westminster have promised to allow Scotland to practice increasing freedom within the continuing UK. Edinburgh has been promised new authority over taxes, spending, and social welfare. These promises were sufficient to bolster undecided voters and amass the NO votes needed to maintain the union.
Meanwhile, in America, the Obama administration has — as a result of its frustration with our traditional protections of federal balance of power — sought by executive action to further regulate social policy in America. To be more precise, the Obama administration has sought to federalize social policy when it fits with its agenda (as in abortion coverage as a part of mandated health insurance) while allowing states to ignore federal regulations when the federal laws disagree with its agenda (as in the legalization of marijuana). Obama’s use of executive action threatens the liberty and freedom of Americans, and encourages libertarians to dream of votes for possible independence, as we have just witnessed in Scotland.
The larger goals of Scotland and England are very consistent and complementary. Yet, because the Western heritage is based on freedom and liberty, the Scots react strongly when the federal government in Westminster restricts their means and choices.
Several years ago while touring in the UK, I noticed a difference in how dogs were handled in England and in Scotland. There were no incidents in either nation in which dogs threatened me in any way; they all behaved in a most prim and proper manner. Yet I noticed that dogs in England were always on a leash, while in Scotland they were allowed to roam. When I returned home, I did some internet searching. Although dog laws are appropriately a matter of local regulation rather than national law, I noticed that (as a general rule) local laws in England required that dogs be on a leash, but local laws in Scotland required that dogs be “under control.” There is agreement over the goal that dogs should not create threats or inconveniences to other people, but in England, it was common to regulate the means, while in Scotland people were allowed to choose their own means — as long as they achieved the desired end. If your dog was appropriately trained, then the leash was not necessary.
Any modern Western society requires many regulations in order that one’s personal freedom does not interfere or threaten the rights of others. It is bothersome, for example, if my neighbors burn noxious waste. It is bothersome if my neighbors’ noise and lights impact my personal space. However, the lesson of Scotland is that regulating personal lives should, as much as possible, respect freedom and liberty. In order to do so, our laws (preferably local laws) should regulate the desired ends, while allowing people the freedom to choose the strategies to achieve those ends.
The British government has been using the term “devolution” to mean allowing local government to retake control of local issues, rather than regulating them at the federal level. It is devolution, I suppose, in that control is removed from the higher federal level and returned to the lower local level. More properly, however, it should not be termed devolution; it should be called freedom. In the West, we expect the right to personally control our daily lives and (where necessary) to regulate them at the local level.
Westminster promises to give more freedom back to Scotland. I long for a movement in America in which Washington gives more freedom back to our own state and local governments. Call it devolution if you will. I call it freedom.
(Welton is assistant dean for institutional assessment, professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, and a contributor to The Center for Vision & Values.)