States like California, Illinois and New York already “have more-or-less become European,” argues Samuel Gregg, author of the new book, “Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future.”
“At its core, to ‘become like Europe’ is to prioritize the realization of economic security through government intervention over virtually all other considerations,” Gregg, who is director of research at the Acton Institute for the study of religion and liberty, told The Daily Caller in an email. “That includes competing economic concerns such as fiscal solvency, but also particular values such as human freedom and human flourishing.”
“If you think about the criteria I just identified,” he went on to say, “it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.”
But what’s so wrong with becoming like Europe? It’s not quite North Korea, right?
Gregg, who earned a doctorate in moral philosophy at Oxford, admits that while Europe has “much to like … it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe.”
He says he doesn’t mean that there is a sudden “re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years,” but rather “a near-obsession on the part of most European politicians … with equality in the sense of trying to eliminate difference, including just and natural distinctions.”
“Most European governments have ‘Ministers for Equality’ or ‘Equality Commissions,’ many of which are staffed by people who seem intent upon gutting European civilization in the name of whatever happens to be the latest politically-correct fashion,” he argued.
Another “major problem” with Europe, Gregg explained, “is the acceleration throughout Western Europe of a phenomenon which Alexis de Tocqueville made famous in ‘Democracy in America’: soft despotism.”
“Millions of Europeans seem content to give up so much of their liberty to the political class, just so long as the state gives them perpetual economic security,” he said.
Read the full interview with Gregg below about his new book, what he believes makes America unique and which politicians he believes best understand and convey the message he propounds in his book:
Why did you write the book?
Around 2009, many Americans started using words such “Europeanization” to express their concerns about what seemed to be happening to America, both politically and economically. That’s somewhat different to words like “socialization.” “Europeanization” implied an awareness that something else is going on — something that goes beyond economic policy and even politics. And that “something” was deeper cultural changes that had significant implications for economic life in America. But while many people were using the phrase, I couldn’t find any writings that, first, explained in depth what Europeanization might mean, and, second, whether it actually was manifesting itself in America. Hence, I decided to try and spell this all out, but to do it in a relatively accessible way.
What does it mean to become like Europe?
At its core, to “become like Europe” is to prioritize the realization of economic security through government intervention over virtually all other considerations. That includes competing economic concerns such as fiscal solvency, but also particular values such as human freedom and human flourishing.
In institutional and policy-terms, becoming European translates into large welfare states, extensive labor market regulation, high taxation, increasing public debt, while trying to keep some features of the market economy. But it also means a severe diminishment in risk-taking, demographic-decline, weak levels of entrepreneurship, falling productivity, high unemployment, and diminishing respect for property-rights. Another element of economic Europeanization is the growth of a political-bureaucratic class — both on the left and the right — that, for all the endless chatter about democracy in Europe, has proved very successful at making sure that it remains in control. The other factor in the mix is that large numbers of interest groups and citizens allow themselves to be co-opted into these arrangements, so that they can be relied upon to resist any meaningful shift away from these essentially social democratic arrangements.
In what ways do you think the U.S. has become like Europe?
If you think about the criteria I just identified, it’s obvious that parts of America — states like California, Illinois, and New York — have more-or-less become European. Likewise, the fact that most federal government expenditures are overwhelmingly on welfare programs replicates the situation prevailing throughout Western Europe. Then there is the unwillingness on the part of many Americans to accept that we cannot go on this way. It is one thing to have problems. But it’s quite another to refuse to acknowledge them.
What’s so bad about becoming like Europe? It’s not that bad of a place. It’s not like becoming like North Korea, right?
I lived and studied in Europe for several years. So I can report that there is much to like! But even leaving aside many European nations’ apparent willingness to settle for long-term economic stagnation, I would argue that it’s becoming harder and harder to be a free person in Europe. By that, I don’t mean a re-emergence of the type of socialist regimes that controlled half of Europe for 50 years. Rather I have in mind two things.
The first is a near-obsession on the part of most European politicians (including many “conservatives”, British Prime Minister Cameron being Exhibit A) with equality in the sense of trying to eliminate difference, including just and natural distinctions. Most European governments have “Ministers for Equality” or “Equality Commissions,” many of which are staffed by people who seem intent upon gutting European civilization in the name of whatever happens to be the latest politically-correct fashion. The second major problem is the acceleration throughout Western Europe of a phenomenon which Alexis de Tocqueville made famous in “Democracy in America”: soft despotism. Millions of Europeans seem content to give up so much of their liberty to the political class, just so long as the state gives them perpetual economic security.
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.
If what you say is true, what policies does America need to embrace in order to reverse course?
Anything that incentivizes more economic creativity and starts to reduce the size and scope of the welfare state is all to the good. Taking federalism seriously would also be a helpful step. But, as I argue in the book, reversing America’s course away from becoming Europe involves much more than altering policies. Policy matters, but fundamental attitudinal change is far more important. Because unless policies that enhance free enterprise and limit the state’s economic reach are accompanied by more people consciously embracing the values, beliefs and expectations that bolster a free market economy, you will have only won a short-term battle while continuing to lose the long-term war.
What is the most interesting anecdote or statistic you discovered researching the book?
The most interesting (and disturbing) was a 2011 study of what Americans were willing to do in order to resolve our spending and debt problems. Despite being aware that social security and other entitlement programs constituted the bulk of federal government spending, even self-described Tea Party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security “unacceptable.” Granted, the same study suggested larger numbers of Americans were willing to lift the retirement age to 69 and means-test social security. But that hardly counts as radical reform. Even France has proved willing to raise its official retirement age!
What politicians do you think best understand and convey the message you write about in your book?
There are some politicians – Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul – who do, as far as I can tell, understand that many of our economic problems are driven, at their root, by particular moral and cultural choices made by many citizens and politicians. But even many committed conservative and free market politicians seem unable to escape the jargon of supply and demand, efficiency and effectiveness, when they try to explain the problem. Conservatives are very good at policy. But the left are much, much better at the vision-thing; that means they are usually much better at persuading people to embrace their ideas and policies, no matter how misguided and in some instance downright wrong such ideas and policies may be.