Saturday, January 24, 2009

Let's Be Like Europe: Or, why we're not...

Given that the European Union economy and population are comparable to that of the US, it is pretty normal to find Americans from all political ideologies making comparisons.

This week, for example, Dana questions why we don't consider bank nationalization on the Swedish model, while the latest judicial attack on free speech leaves Becky believing that Europe is lost.

My point today is not to argue that either of them is right or wrong, but to illustrate the fact that such comparisons are often less than useful, because in many important ways America is not like Europe at all.

Let's start with a basic difference of political economy, true since the early colonial days: in Europe, land was expensive and labor was cheap--so cheap, in fact, that the people on the land (or at least their labor obligations) were often sold with the land). In America (not counting those pesky Indians), land was cheap and labor was expensive, a situation pertaining right up through the heavy industrial revolution, and doing a lot to explain indentured servitude, African slavery, and massive European/Asian immigration.

Second basic difference: population density. Due to the expanse of North America, you have always had a much lower average population density--even in places like the Bos-Wash corridor--than in urbanized Europe.

Third basic difference: resources contained on the North American continent are sufficient to feed the population and actually meet a very high percentage of the fuel and natural resources requirements of industry; such is not the case in Europe, which has needed to import food through most of the years past 1500 just to support the population--which is why blockades such as used in the Napoleonic wars, World War I and World War II were so effective.

Fourth basic difference: religion. Due to what is termed the Founder Effect, most Americans associate the settling of this country with flight from religious persecution and the establishment of religious (at least Christian) pluralism. But despite such bends in the road as hanging witches in Massachusetts, the impact of religion in the US has mostly been one that cycles back and forth between fueling social reform or social conservatism. The impact attributed to religion in Europe is--as late as the Holocaust--is a serious of prolonged, highly destructive wars.

Fifth basic difference: global isolation. Let's face it: compared to Europe it is difficult to attack American with anything short of nuclear weapons. Yes, you can talk about Al Qaeda and September 11, but the reality is that such an act was pretty much a one-shot, and certainly had more psychological than destructive impact. Our borders have done such a good job of protecting us that the rare exceptions (Washington DC burned in 1814, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11) stand out in our memories. What about Europe? Twice in the sixteenth century Muslim armies penetrated Europe to the walls of Vienna; for centuries the Muslims occupied Spain and large parts of the Balkans; starting with the Hapsburgs, followed by Frederick the Great, Bonaparte, Bismarck, Wilhelm, Adolf, and then the Cold War, central Europe has been a battleground with remarkable consistency throughout the last several centuries. The absence of Europe-wide conflict since 1945 is important because some folks there think it might break the cycle. I have my doubts.

Sixth basic difference: regulation. The US has a frontier mentality (the Turner thesis) that includes--among other variables--the idea that communities are self-organized out of rugged individuals, and that too much organization and government control means it's time to leave. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons why America has never been home to a truly politically important Socialist movement. If you look at America in the 1930s and compare it to what happened in Europe, one of the things you discover is that what distinguished the New Deal from what was going on in the Old World, you'll find that FDR did not proceed (thankfully!) anywhere near as far as his European counterparts. There is a thoroughly engrained suspicion of authority in American culture.

Seventh basic difference: adaptation versus adapting. This is a difficult one to explain in a single paragraph, but it goes like this: thanks to the size of the country and the low population density, Americans have tended to met large problems by adapting their environment to our needs, while European approaches generally start by adapting their needs to the environment. This oversimplies things a lot--I'm not necessarily using environment in an ecological sense here, and I am certainly not making (except, perhaps, very indirectly) any sort of Green argument. Let's put it like this: given a need to build a road from one side of a mountain range to the other, European engineering tends to build a long, twisty road with lots of swithbacks that take advantage of existing contour lines in the terrain; American engineering tends either to blow the F**king top off of the mountain and go straight over, or hollow the sucker out for a tunnel. Both approaches have positive and negative connotations.

There are other differences--and the differences listed as critical will be affected by who you are and what questions you start off asking--but the idea that a program which works in Europe will automatically work in America, or that a social movement sweeping Europe will leapfrog directly to our shores, is never as simple a proposition as either ambitious progressives or fearful libertarians tend to believe.


Tyler Nixon said...

Your road-building comparison made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that.

Delaware Watch said...

Steve, interesting post. I replied to you here:

Anonymous said...

another key difference is the size of the players.

If sweden nationalizes it's entire economy, it would have nearly no effect on the world as a whole. IF the US did the same thing, no corner of the globe would be un-affected.

Consider these two alternative headlines:
"McDonalds doubles the price of hamburgers"
"Jake's Hamburger stand doubles their prices"

Brian Miller said...

I've lived in both continents (the USA and Canada as well as Britain and France), and you largely hit the nail on the head, Steve.

You missed perhaps one of the most crucial ingredients, however -- the Class System.

For all the talk about "equality" in Europe, the country is divided up into classes that "get" certain privileges.

For instance, Alan M. Sugar, despite being worth hundreds of millions, is considered "working class" and wasn't truly a "figure of pride" until he became SIR Alan M. Sugar.

The geeks who built computers in their basements and dreamed of millions of units sold were largely told to "shut up and stop trying to rise above your station." In the USA, they founded Commodore and Apple and Microsoft and Intel and changed the world.

In general, individual innovation is discouraged in Europe. Innovation is an institutional thing and those who try it personally are a bit of an outcast. Entrepreneurship, despite its etymological roots in the French language, is also generally frowned upon outside the UK (which is derided by many other European nations as "a nation of shopkeepers.")

The limits of government are also a lot more nebulous, as is the concept of self-ownership. In Britain, it's arguable about whether you have a right to free speech (the technical term there is "liberated speech" and the assumption is that the Queen allows you a degree of freedom based "on the times.") Property rights are rather weak -- a large proportion of the population rents or "owns" in a transient way (such as the uniquely English concept of the "leasehold mortgage.")

Distance is a serious difference as well. I've driven 600 miles in less than a day in the USA. If you drive 600 miles in the UK, you've driven from the extreme south coast to the extreme north coast.

The population is less transient, due to language and national boundaries. A "long distance move" in the UK is 100 miles.

Europe is based around a few "focus cities" like London, Paris, Madrid and Frankfurt, and the economic implications are pretty clear. North America does not have overwhelming focus cities of that nature.

New York is not as central to American life as London is to British life or Paris is to French life. The second and third cities of Europe, like Lyon or Birmingham or Munich, are not as economically developed and independent and robust as North American second/third cities like Philadelphia or Chicago or Vancouver.

Europe is less ethnically diverse, and its pained efforts at multiculturalism are a bit forced compared to the simple "live and let live" that constitutes American life in our melting pot cities.

Welfare and government benefits are much more popular in Europe, with numerous people availing themselves of them and becoming dependent on them. There's less of a cultural issue with "going on the dole." And often, the council housing in London is nicer than the private housing across the dock or river.

Taxes for a standard working person are almost punitive. You pay taxes on fuel, taxes on electricity, taxes on a bank account, and in the UK, a tax on existence called "council tax," which runs about $250 a month regardless of your income. Goods and services cost anywhere from 100% to 300% more in the UK than they do in the USA as a result.

Finally, European culture (with the exception of France) is based upon compliance with the views of the "authorities and experts" in government and industry. One knows his place in most of Europe. The United States' dominant culture is a deep mistrust of authority and cheering for the underdog.

Tyler Nixon said...

Great encapsulation, Brian. Very comprehensive and spot-on.