Friday, February 8, 2008

There is more of a barrier between America and Europe than the Atlantic Ocean--which is a good thing

Here's an answer (you'll be able to intuit the question) that sometimes comes up in discussions with my students:

"I will not discuss whether or not there are firearms in my home, because it's none of your damn business. However, I will tell you this. Should someone break into my house, where my wife, my three children, one grandchild, and three cats live with me, I will do my dead level best to kill them before they can harm my family. I will take such reasonable precautions as seem to me to be sensible in the context of the moment to insure that they have not broken into my house by mistake, but the ruling idea behind my decision-making will be the safety of my family and not the life of the intruder."

I'm sure that, like my students, some of you are taken aback by that blunt statement. On the other hand, I am equally sure that many of you know exactly what I am talking about.

Lee, over at A Secondhand Conjecture, has a post about the cultural gap between Americans and Britons on the issue of defending your home. It seems that in Britain, defending your home is not only more difficult (since the criminals have the government's assurance that you do not possess firearms) than here, but is--in most cases--actually illegal.

Over the past few years, social conservatives have demonized Europe in terms of politics, social programs, and foreign policy.

Now, as the Bush administration is safely into its last year, Liberals and Progressives are reacting to the far opposite end of the spectrum, idealizing European politics, social programs, and foreign policy.

Both approaches are a mistake. Europe does not exist as an archetype--good or bad--by which to measure America's worth. Using European examples to prove that single-payer health care, firearm confiscation policies, or educational practices are the correct future road for America is a misguided exercise.

Our country differs from Europe in terms of culture, environment, natural resources, national history, population demographics, and dozens of other variables. What works there will not necessarily work here (and vice versa).

So let's hope that over the next four years we are not going to continue to have to listen to people tell us how much more like Europe we should want our country to become.

Why don't we just concentrate on building the best US we can--on our own terms?

4 comments:

Brian Shields said...

A close to home example:

My co-worker was putting his last child to sleep a few weeks ago in Harrington. Wife's in the shower. he hears his squeaky front door creak open, and knows someone's breaking in.

He makes enough noise running downstairs that the intruder flees, and alerts the wife to call 911. he hears the guy leave through the squeaky door, turns around and grabs his shotgun.

By the time he gets out the door on his front porch with the shotgun, the police have arrived.

The police spend the next half hour quizzing him about the gun, what was he planning to do with it, where's the permit, etc etc...

Meanwhile the intruder runs off. Forty five minutes later they patrol the neighborhood, and surprise, no criminal found.

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...

I think your argument would need more than just some blanket "They are different from us" to work. You would need to show why on a particular issue (say, in the case of single-payer, universal health care)the cultural differences constitute an insuperable barrier to fair comparisons and what is possible for the US to emulate or not (and visa versa). Perhaps such analyzes are possible but it would depend on the issue in question and the nation being compared, etc.

Short of that kind of convincing analysis, surely a legitimate answer to the question "Is X possible?" is "X is done in _____________."

Steve Newton said...

Dana,
I'm actually getting to where you're asking in terms of trying to do that sort of analysis, but its an ongoing kind of project that--frankly--is on the back burner for a few weeks due to real life. Bits and pieces are going to come out, but you'll have to give me until, say, this time next month for a full product.

However, I will offer this.

You say, "Short of that kind of convincing analysis, surely a legitimate answer to the question "Is X possible?" is "X is done in _____________.""

That tautology assumes rather than proves the situations to be close enough to equal to make that comparison. For example, if people in the Sudan ask, "Is it possible to have a country without religious warfare and genocide?" the answer, "There is no religious warfare or genocide in the US (today)" is hardly a helpful answer or a valid comparison.

You have made the statement (I am not going back to look up the quote) or at least operate from the assumption that the industrialized democracies of Western Europe, Australia, and Japan ARE in fact similar enough for the comparison with regard to single-payer health care to be valid.

I don't think that's true with respect to health care, or education, or a lot of issues, but I accept the truth of your implicit point that enough people agree with you about that comparison to leave the burden of proof to me. (Did that sentence make grammatical sense? Just got off a plane and can't tell.)

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...

"That tautology"

It isn't a tautology since in my example X could be done nowhere.

"...assumes rather than proves the situations to be close enough to equal to make that comparison."

When the question are "Is X possible" as in logically possible or as in presently extant, concerns about the situation being "close enough" aren't relevant to answering the question at the level of "Is X conceivable" or "Does any other nation do X." The former is merely a logical matter while the latter is an empirical matter.

It seems to me, therefore, that when one meets the burden of showing that not only is X conceivable and that some people are already doing X, the onus is on those who want to claim that there is some insuperable cultural difference that makes doing x possible P1 but not at P2.

So when I answer the question "Is a single-payer universal health care system possible" and I point out that 18 other nations do it now, I don't have an immediate and automatic burden to show that we are not culturally exempted from what 18 other nations do routinely and have done so for a many years. That onus isn't on me, but on the person who wants to show the such a health care system is impossible here.

"For example, if people in the Sudan ask, "Is it possible to have a country without religious warfare and genocide?" the answer, "There is no religious warfare or genocide in the US (today)" is hardly a helpful answer or a valid comparison."

Why not? Would it be helpful to tell them instead they are condemned to several generations of massive bloodshed? Yes, tell them that nations--many nations--in the world go through motions each day w/o factions murdering one another on a massive scale.

I strongly suspect that most Sudanese would be quite content not to murder others in their nation regardless of their differences.

"I don't think that's true with respect to health care, or education, or a lot of issues, but I accept the truth of your implicit point that enough people agree with you about that comparison to leave the burden of proof to me."

Oops. I spoke the above too soon. My bad. Sorry.

Take all the time you need on it. We've both got a lot on the plate now.