“I have been half in love with easeful Death...”
– John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Easeful death: that, in a nutshell, is the topic of Samuel Gregg's new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Gregg, who is the director of research at the Acton Institute, reminds us that when Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America in 1831, he encountered a nation of people who startled and impressed him with their robustness, energy, ambition, and entrepreneurial spirit – in a word, their life. The America of today, or at least the America of not very long ago, was still recognizably, at heart, the same America that Tocqueville wrote about in Democracy in America: a country of hard-working, optimistic people who believed ardently in self-reliance, individual enterprise, and – above all – freedom.
Gregg contrasts this intensely vital America with the nations of Europe that, since World War II, have rejected U.S.-style liberal democracy in favor of social democracy, subordinating individual liberty to cradle-to-grave communal security and allowing their economic vigor to be smothered by, as Gregg puts it, the “dead hand of the state.” If indeed what Europeans enjoy today is a kind of “easeful death,” it is a death that many of them would die rather than give up. Frenchmen who can't bring themselves to get up in the morning and go to work – preferring instead to live on generous government benefits – are nonetheless able to spend days on end marching in the streets, stopping traffic, ranting at gendermes, and mounting the barricades, Les Miz-style, in protest against even the slightest proposed rollback in those handouts.
Never mind the economic logic of the situation – the fact that something's eventually got to give. We're talking about multiple generations of Europeans who have been brought up on the idea that they're entitled. The idea that a society, to be truly humane, must temper the harshness of capitalism through the multifarious efforts of a benign state. The idea that today's European social-democratic welfare state represents the very culmination of the millennia-long progress of human civilization. And, of course, the idea that even the slightest compromise with realism would amount to an inexcusable step back toward American-style barbarism. As Jacques Chirac put it (disgracefully) in 2005, liberalism – meaning an economy more like America's – “would be as disastrous as communism” to his country. Or how about this dumb line, which Gregg credits to former European Commission president Jacques Delors: “Cinema explains American society. It's like a Western, with good guys and bad guys, where the weak don't have a place.” (Yes, and in France all the conversations are in song, just like in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) The America-as-Wild-West meme is a moribund cliché, of course, but it's alive and well in the Land of the Dead.
The other day Michael Moore's 2007 health-care “documentary,” Sicko, happened to be on TV where I live, and I caught a scene in which Moore sat around a table with a half-dozen or so American expatriates who live in Paris – and who, to his obvious delight, couldn't stop singing the praises of the Gallic system, which they all exultantly described, in essence, as a bottomless Christmas stocking stuffed with goodies. It wasn't just free medical care – it was free everything. How shameful, they all concurred, that America can't be the same way! Who other than mean, hateful people would be against that? Even the Brits (can these be the same folks who made Margaret Thatcher the longest-serving PM of the century?) have drunk the Kool-Aid. A new poll says that 72% of them think their National Health System embodies “what is great about Britain” and that “we must do everything we can to maintain it.” That's what's great about Britain? Really? A government bureaucracy? Drop for a moment the question of whether socialized medicine is a blessing or a curse – think what it says about Britain that three-quarters of its citizens now apparently conceive of national greatness in this fashion. What percentage of them, I wonder, would identify their nation's greatness with, say, Magna Carta, Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer, Isaac Newton's scientific legacy, Christopher Wren's architecture, J.M.W. Turner's paintings, Edward Elgar's music, Churchill's speeches, Olivier's films? What about Stephen Hawking? Or, for that matter, Keats?
It's thanks to such blinkered thinking that some of Europe's welfare states are already as good as dead and others living on borrowed time. And yet it's not just Michael Moore's clueless expatriate pals in Paris who'd like to see the U.S. (which, needless to say, has meandered too far down that road already) embrace an even more highly regulated economic system, one that obsessively redistributes wealth, thoroughly punishes entrepreneurship, and consistently subordinates economic freedom to economic security – or, rather, the illusion thereof. As Gregg reminds us, many politicians, pundits, and even economists in the U.S. held up the 2008 financial crisis as proof that “the twenty-first century's economic future did not lie in America” but in the European Union. Well, yes, America is in a hell of an fiscal pickle – but it ain't because it doesn't have a sufficiently lavish and bountiful welfare system.
And that's more or less the point of Gregg's book – which he's written because he recognizes an even greater Europeanization of the U.S. economy as a real, and perilous, possibility. To be sure, as he underscores, America is “not yet Europe.” At least some Americans actually fret about deficit spending and public debt; even now, with the writing on the wall (in big letters, and in all twenty-three official EU languages), few Europeans do. U.S. labor markets are still more flexible than Europe's. And Americans are still entrepreneurial-minded. Europe, the World Bank points out, “has few companies that match the dynamism of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, or Microsoft.” Still, in recent years America's ranking on the Global Innovation Index has slipped; its GDP has declined relative to other G-20 economies; and – in what Gregg calls “the real shock” – the percentage of Americans who take a positive view of free markets has, according to a survey he cites, dropped dramatically. (Gregg says nothing about Obama's re-election, presumably because Becoming Europe had already gone to press by November 6.)
Perhaps the sanest, wisest, and most responsible leader in Europe today is Czech president Václav Klaus, who unlike most of his counterparts on the continent has no illusions about the facts before him. “Europeans are not interested in capitalism and free markets,” he complained in a 2011 speech quoted by Gregg, “and do not understand that their current behavior undermines the very institutions that made their past success possible.” Alas, the number of Americans about whom the same might be said is higher than ever and still rising, with no end in sight to the self-destructive self-delusion.
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