When did this drift towards becoming like Europe begin? What groups are pushing America that way?
I’d suggest it began with the Progressivists who basically decided that they needed to remake the entire American experiment in ways quite contrary to the Founding. It accelerated with the New Deal, but in many respects the most significant changes happened with Lyndon Johnson’s not-so-Great Society programs. In “Becoming Europe” I argue that it has been a generally incremental process, spurred on at different points by crises such as the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession that begin in 2007.
The groups pushing America in this direction include organizations such as unions, formidably organized pensioner lobbies, but also businesses that prefer corporate welfare to competition. But perhaps the biggest impetus has come from American liberal intellectuals, activists, and politicians. The smarter ones among that group have always understood that it’s not politics or economics that drives history. It’s culture. And by cultivating the sense among many Americans for several generations that social democracy is morally superior to the market economy, they have helped drive America closer to what we presently see imploding across the pond.
What makes America so distinctive from Europe, culturally and economically?
In the first place, liberty and a concern for limiting government economic power are still taken more seriously here than in Western Europe. Even President Obama has to make token references to this in his speeches in an effort to assure us that he doesn’t want to remake us in Europe’s image. Second, the Founding has bequeathed the United States with an indispensible reference point against which it can check itself to see if America is remaining faithful to its roots. Such a specific reference point is harder for Europeans as a collective whole to identify with. Third, as Tocqueville observed long ago, religion plays an active role in the life of millions on Americans in ways that are much harder to see in Western Europe. And that’s important for the fourth cultural difference, also underscored by Tocqueville: the persistence of the habit of free association, long dormant in Europe, that makes civil society alive in America.
Economically-speaking, the number-one difference between America and Europe remains the much higher levels of entrepreneurship in the United States. This is underscored by numerous comparative studies. We’re also fortunate that our labor markets remain, for the moment, much freer than most European countries. When it’s virtually impossible to fire anyone, businesses don’t hire, as many European nations have belatedly discovered. Americans also, on average, work harder, longer and smarter than most Europeans. That makes us much more productive.