Far from the freedom of the open road, today’s US offers a spider’s web of local and
federal rules. Fancy bicycling without a helmet or unleashing your dog? Or perhaps
opening a can of beer on the beach? There is an ordinance forbidding it. New York is
trying to ban 16-ounce soda. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew would not feel out of place in
Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago. Sugar is the new tobacco, we are told. How soon before we
get to caffeine?
The fashion for paternalism is driven by a growing culture of conformity. Some of it
is driven by demand. More than three generations after the Great Depression and the
second world war, and almost two generations after Vietnam, there are few
Americans alive who remember how hard life once was. Words such as thrift and
rugged have dropped from everyday speech. People’s understanding of what is risky
has expanded sharply while their resilience to setbacks has fallen. University
administrators talk about “tea cup” students, who are so fragile they shatter easily.
College freshers are so used to getting pass grades in high school for mediocre work
many cannot handle the shock of accurate marking. Almost half of US college
students fail to complete four-year degrees in six years.
Some of it is also driven by supply. In a labour market, where people are increasingly
competing with machines for jobs, there is waning tolerance for antisocial behaviour.
Employers routinely scrutinise an applicant’s online history, as well as conducting
the more traditional drug tests and criminal checks. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the
great US senator, once complained that America was “defining deviancy down”. That
trend has gone full throttle into reverse.
Hordes of American children apparently now suffer from some kind of mental
condition. Ten per cent are diagnosed with attention deficit disorder – triple the level
of 20 years ago. Many such diagnoses are surely authentic. And perhaps ADD used to
be underreported. But it is hard to believe it has suddenly taken off. There was a time
when chronic fidgeting in class got you detention. Now it is medicated with Ritalin.
In 1992, one in 500 American children were diagnosed as autistic. Now it is one in
68. Prescriptions have rocketed.
Beneath the battles against racism and for sexual freedom, there is a deeper pull to
conformity. What may once have been seen as eccentric is now liable to penalty, or
The same applies to adults. Last year the American Psychiatric Association produced
its latest Diagnostic Manual of Statistical and Mental Disorders – DSM5, as it is
known. It is the psychiatrist’s bible. Among the recent conditions is Social Anxiety
Disorder – otherwise known as shyness. Twelve per cent of Americans get SAD at
some point, for which the helpful folk at GlaxoSmithKline prescribe Paxil. Other
disorders include “hypersex”, “hoarding” and “bereavement”. Some psychiatrists
believe there is an epidemic of anxiety in the US. That may be so – life can be
stressful in the internet age. Far more likely, however, is an outbreak of diagnostic
Some of it can be blamed on the drugs companies, who bombard doctors with
freebies. They also advertise directly to teachers and parents. But a great deal can be
blamed on the widely held belief that every wayward emotion is the result of some
chemical imbalance – and can thus be reversed by medication.
Many Americans – and not just those who support the Tea Party – chafe against
suffocating regulations and the trend to “polypharmacy”. “Liberty or death” is a
patriotic rallying cry. “Don’t tread on me” is another. Among the millennial
generation there is rising support for libertarianism. And among Americans of all age
groups there is growing support for gay marriage, legalised cannabis and even
atheism. Freedom is a paradox. There are parts of America where it is difficult to
smoke anything except for marijuana.
But the march of liberty is not a one-way street. Beneath the battles against racism
and for sexual freedom, there is a deeper pull to conformity. What may once have
been seen as eccentric is now liable to penalty, or prescription. Allen J Frances, a
leading critic of DSM5, who headed the task force that produced an earlier manual,
puts it well: “We are homogenising our crops and homogenising our people. Big
Pharma [is] pursuing a parallel attempt to create its own brand of human
Compared with many democracies, America no longer feels unusually free.
Psychiatrists keep turning up new forms of “deregulated” behaviour. Legislators keep
drafting regulations to address them. People’s tolerance of disorder is falling, as is
their resilience to shock. Feeling unusually human today? There is a pill for that.
There might even be a law against it.