How to avoid becoming Europe

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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The other day, Mitt Romney told CNBC the U.S. economy was “in danger of becoming a carbon copy of European nations.” He didn’t say France (possibly because he is associated with having lived there as a missionary) but everyone probably assumed that’s what he meant.

Over the years, Europe — but especially France — has become a convenient punching bag. John Kerry was said to be too French. Former Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld criticized “old Europe.” And who could forget “Freedom Fries”?

But while this has become a running joke, there is truth to it. Many of the once-great European nations have declined. We don’t want that to happen here. But really, this is nothing new.

In “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” author David McCullough notes that — having spent months attempting to pitch his telegraph invention in France — artist and inventor Samuel Morse finally determined, “It would be at home in America that his [telegraph] invention would have much the best chance.”

This was because (in his words):

“There is more of the ‘go-ahead’ character with us. … [In Paris] there are old systems long established to interfere, and at least to make them cautious before adapting a new project, however promising. Their railroad operations are a proof in point.”

Even without the government’s involvement, the natural tendency of bureaucracy is to grow. Old institutions, as such, tend to gather moss. One doesn’t have to look to Europe for examples; we’ve seen this in the political media world. It was arguably easier for Politico to start from scratch and change the political media paradigm — than for legacy outlets like RollCall or The Hill to adapt. The Daily Caller probably benefits from similar circumstances.

The American experiment (granted, with tremendous natural resources at her disposal) benefited from being able to preserve the best traditions of western civilization, while scraping off old Europe’s dirty barnacles.

And over the years, we’ve been aided by continued immigration — which has provided us with waves of fresh new ideas and talent (40 percent of fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.)

But as we’ve gotten older, some of the same sort of bureaucratic impediments that caused Morse to abandon Paris have also sprung up here. We have created our very own “old systems long established to interfere.”

The danger, of course, is that we make it harder for new ideas to succeed. Whether tomorrow’s inventors abandon their dreams — or go somewhere else to pursue them — is beside the point. If we’re not careful, onerous regulatory hurdles will make it hard for the little guy to succeed. (The hurdles, of course, are almost always created with the best of intentions — in the name of safety and prudence.)

Like old Europe, the very act of mocking France has become stale. But that doesn’t mean that — beneath the cheap applause lines — this isn’t a serious topic worthy of discussion.

Republicans running for president — heck, anyone serious about improving this nation — should give serious thought to how we can continue to spur innovation, and avoid stifling creativity. So yes, Mitt Romney does have a point about Europe.

Matt K. Lewis