Friday, November 20, 2009

Europe and American Politics

In a recent discussion of E.U. legal issues, someone proposed a hypothetical—the U.S. joining the European Union. It occurred to me that reactions to that scenario provide an interesting slant on U.S. attitudes. To some, probably including a majority of those in the room, it sounds like a dream too good to be true. To others it sounds more like a nightmare.

It is one of the lines along which Americans divide. Many see western European societies as more civilized, humane, intelligent than ours. Others see them as conservative, sclerotic, boring—a warning of what we could, and shouldn't, become. Roughly speaking, it is the same line that divides us politically. I would guess that most in the first group voted for the Democratic candidate in the last few election and a majority in the second for the Republican. As Charles Murray wrote somewhere, we now know what Barack Obama is. He's a Swede.

It would be interesting to look at the same division from the other side. It is surely true now, as it has been true for a very long time, that many Europeans look on America as only half civilized, with much to learn from older and wiser cultures. It is surely also true that many see it as where things are happening. I remember a conversation with some English students some forty years ago; one, I believe a dental student, commented that all the new stuff in his field was coming out of America.

Reading Dick Francis, a very popular English novelist, it is pretty clear that he and his protagonists are in the second category, that they see America as almost literally a breath of fresh air. For a more ambiguous view, consider a book by Scottish science fiction novelist Ken MacLeod, set in the mid-21st century. His protagonist sees America as an immature, irresponsible, wasteful culture, insufficiently concerned with energy conservation and the like. But when, fleeing political difficulties at home, he escapes to America, he says that it feels as though he has spent his life living under a low roof and it has suddenly been lifted.


Anonymous said...

While the idea of the U.S. joining the European Union is interesting, they wouldn't have us. The U.S. government is far to fiscally reckless to be admitted to the EU.

Johannes said...

I have not been to the US for too long, to have a decent idea of the "feeling" there.

But I have always viewed teh USA as the freer country, compared to france or germany. I think many liberals have a false picture of europe. The places where socialism relly "hit in", in the planned and structured ghettos of Paris' and Stockholm's outskirts and in the super high subsidized, yet still dead countryside of east germany - those playes aren't nice. I'd say they have less working social strcuture than most of the US.

I have to say though, that Bush ruined a lot. I mean think about what america was in the clinton area.

From libertarian point of view, bush has commited all the classical sins of conservatives (war, higher mil. cost, being stupid) and has additionally done nothing of the good stuff that conservatives are supposed to do. More centralised education, less civil rights..

In health care bush has protected the big companies and not opened the market for canadian drugs. So I'd say he ruined a lot. And the thing is that every young person half way smart now thinks that _everything_ about conservative ideology is wrong. So America is getting more like europe, which is a petty.

For example, teh EU is now banning _light balls_ ... WT Heck? EU will now create a minimum tax on cigarettes and tobacco, maintaining at least that tax will be mandatory. So even now EU is cutting into "states" rights more than even the US constitution would allow. There is no legal limit as to what the EU can do, basically. I don't know about the US joining the EU but _being_ in teh EU turns into a nightmare more and more.

Eric Goldman said...

David, I was struck by the same observation. I was intrigued because I love the idea of a common market with reduced barriers to the movement of goods across geographic borders. If we could achieve that outcome without all of the other EU nonsense, that would be a good thing. Eric.

William H Stoddard said...

You make me think of Joni Mitchell's song "California," where she says about France,

I wouldn't want to stay here—
It's too old and cold
And settled in its ways here.

And that comes from a woman of leftist sympathies and (originally) Canadian nationality. The lines have always stuck with me.

Skip said...

I think there are a lot of us here that would happily trade those thin slivers on each coast that aspire to EU-style rule by bureauocracy, for the small portion of Europe that actually desires to be free. Probably couldn't do it via a direct transfer though, maybe could do it via tax policy.

Of course, in 30 years or so we'd be rescuing them from the morass they descended into.

dWj said...

About 5 or 10 years ago, in a big discussion at the University of Chicago, with attendees from across the political spectrum, somebody suggested giving some task or another to the UN, and I responded that I didn't trust the UN. I don't remember the details of the discussion or the task being discussed, but I do remember the group's immediate nonverbal response; about half of the group was nodding knowingly, in a sort of "well, that goes without saying" kind of way, while the other half was absolutely shocked. I assume this is the same divide you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

I'm horrified at the thought of the US joining the EU, but my reaction has nothing to do with culture. I love the culture. Barcelona in particular may be my favorite city in the world. Very specifically, I don't trust the government of the EU.

jimbino said...

For me, Holland and Estonia are the freest countries with regard to taxation and victimless crime policies.

I returned from Germany after my Vietnam-war-avoidance sojourn because of its remnant Nazism, limitations on free speech, possession of Nazi memorabilia, extreme marginal tax rates, church taxes and Saturday and Sunday closing laws.

At least I had the right there to shun participation in the socialized medicine--a right I wouldn't have had in England or France.

There would be mass migration if the USSA ever joined the EU, because then Medicare (and their EU equivalents) would no doubt be transferable to the other shore, which they aren't right now. Many Amerikan managers would be replaced by educated Germans and Dutch, who are all multi-lingual and can speak English better than most Amerikans.

I welcome the idea, though I'd prefer a union of the USSA and Brazil, a much freer country than either the USSA or the EU when it comes to sex, drugs and R&R.

Jonathan said...

Surely there are advantages and disadvantages to be found on both sides of the Atlantic. And most people on both sides are happier living with the devil they know than the devil they don't.

As a European, I know that good things have come out of the USA (including yourself), but I've never felt the urge to live there.

The idea of the USA joining the EU is a new one on me. Though I seem to remember someone in the past raising the idea of European countries joining the USA.

Jonathan said...

I don't think it would be beneficial for the USA to try to be just like the EU, or for the EU to try to be just like the USA. In any case they'd never achieve it.

More useful to look over the ocean carefully and see what lessons can be learned from the other side: from the things they do worse, and the things they do better.

A patriot may find few things that the other side does better; but, if he finds nothing at all, he's probably suffering from defective vision.

Anonymous said...

I disagree that European cultures are older and wiser. The fact is that the USA has had the same constitution for over two hundred years. Which European culture compares with that? France is currently on its fifth republic since we started our first. Germany? Formed in the late 19th Century. Italy? 20th Century. Bulgaria, Roumania? You get the picture. Only Switzerland and Britain have a claim to be older (and Britain only formed its current form with the union of the crowns, eighty years before our constitution.)

Kid said...

I am from Europe.

I'd very much have liked the EU to be nothing more than free movement of persons and free trade of goods. That puts lawmakers into competition with each other.

Wealth and knowledge will migrate to countries with good laws and the countries with bad laws will have to adjust.

To my dismay, however, the European Union has turned out to be more nearly an initiative to have one unified law and one huge democracy, as if it's a massive state, than what I outlined above.

As the situation stands, I am very much opposed to a joining of the US to the EU, because I have the feeling that democracy performs worse the bigger it gets. How can I flee from bad laws if there exists only one government?

Anonymous said...

It would be nice to have a few specifics on the 'advantages' of being part of Europe: Consider that the obligatory 'fee' for the social benefits provided by European governments (using France as a case in point) is between 40 to 50 percent of your income. Even with these high costs, European governments are still running huge budget deficits (i.e. more taxes or inflation on the way). Now compare what percentage of one's income is paid to receive similar 'benefits' (whether privately provided or provided by the government) in U.S.
It is acknowledged that one's income and other factors can play an important role in the comparison. However, based on personal experience in both countries, U.S. is much lower in cost to 'purchase' similar benefits (either voluntarily or involuntarily), which makes me ask the question, should US and Europe 'merge' 'will I end up paying more for the same services'?

William B Swift said...

I'm sure lots of good things have come out of Europe, once upon a time. In the most recent century though, let's see - WW One, Soviet Union, Nazism, WW Two, Greens, the original bunch of communist terrorists who inspired and trained the Islamics. Really civilized!

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan said...

William B Swift: World War 2 was a true world war, which the USA entered only when it was attacked by Japan. I don't think Japan has ever been counted a part of Europe.

Where wars are concerned, North America has the considerable advantage of being composed of only two countries, whose peoples are genetically and culturally similar, and use the same primary language. However, this didn't prevent a major and very bloody civil war in the 19th century, and a series of wars fought on other continents ever since.

I've noticed that some Americans have a tendency to blame "Europe" for the world wars. True, various countries shared some responsibility for the first; but the second was started by Hitler's Germany, and most other European countries were no more responsible for that war than the USA was.

Unknown said...

Which MacLeod Book?

Your post is somewhat ambiguous... I'm assuming that it is MacLeod's protagonist that lived under the low roof, and not MacLeod himself?

Which book is it?

William B Swift said...

Two Comments about WW Two:

First, Japan's militarism has been claimed to be a belated attempt to gain a European style empire, so that could by stretching things a bit be laid at Europe's example.

Second, many believe the individual most to blame for the rise of Nazi Germany was Woodrow Wilson for his meddling in WW One. Though his help was essential for their success, it was the excessive sanctions against Germany (pushed mostly by a petulant France) that helped the Nazi's rise to power.

Jonathan said...

Regarding French petulance after WW1, I guess that having your country invaded and suffering almost six million casualties (dead and wounded) as a result tends to make you a bit petulant afterwards.

I don't think empire-building has been a uniquely European trait. Throughout human history and in all parts of the world, countries did it if they could and didn't if they couldn't. The Chinese empire was established around the same time as the Roman empire.

Jonathan said...

Digression: I see that modern China is almost twice the maximum size of the Roman empire. It's interesting to think that, if the Roman empire had lasted the way the Chinese one has, most or all of Europe would now be one country inhabited by Romans. That country would also include the whole of north Africa, a chunk of the Middle East, and perhaps North and South America as well.

jimbino said...


The last time I looked, there were three, not two, North American countries: Canada, USSA and Mexico.

Jonathan said...

Jimbino: Sure. I was counting Mexico as Central rather than North America, but I don't live there and you're welcome to correct me. Three countries are still a hell of a lot fewer than there are in Europe.

Taking advantage of the few neighbours it has, the USA has fought wars with both Mexico and Canada (and of course with the CSA), but not recently as far as I know.

Jonathan said...

Jimbino: The USSA would be what? The United Socialist States of America?

Have you seen the future? Does it work?

Anonymous said...

Pedantry Fail: "The last time I looked, there were three, not two, North American countries"

Look again.

Jonathan said...

Curiouser and curiouser. I'm no American, but the Wikipedia list seems eccentric to me, including all of what I'd call Central America, plus the West Indies and Greenland! It does say that this is "the most inclusive definition in common use". I didn't know that such a definition was in common use anywhere.

Online Casino said...

While US can and should work with US.It would be disastrous to equate US interest with those Of Europe.

All the EU bureaucracy and inaction if rub off to US will surely lead to decline of US.

Jonathan said...

I think the US government is not entirely innocent of bureaucracy and inaction already, but I agree the EU is worse, as a collective. Individual European governments are not necessarily worse than the US in these respects.

Jonathan said...

To compare the US and the EU on action, or lack of it, isn't really fair: the US is one country with a single government, the EU is a loose alliance of 27 different countries. The wonder is that, as a group, they manage to get anything done at all.