The Myth of Europeanism

The Myth of Europeanism


One thing that has long baffled me has been the idea on the American Right that Europe is some kind of socialist hell-hole that borders on Communist. The thrust of the argument always seems to be that European government is so large and intrusive, and it public mores so lacking and dare I say nihilistic that it is something akin to Hell on Earth. Mark Steyn, not surprisingly, expresses this attitude fairly succinctly, writing:

Europeanism is like Communism: the less time you’ve spent living it in practice the better disposed you are to it in theory. In the same way, few of those Americans who want to introduce Canadian-style health care to the U.S. have ever had surgery at the Royal Victoria. Indeed, America is full of immigrants whose hostility to Euro-Canadian public policy derives explicitly from their prolonged exposure to it.

Of course, the definition of “Europeanism” is ill-defined. So far as I can tell, it’s a reference to a government with a large social welfare system combined with a secularized social policy. The assumption, which is largely based on a false equivalency that social safety nets = socialism = Road to Serfdom and that United States = World’s Only Bastion of Free Market Capitalism = World’s Only Free Country, is that these “Europeanist” policies make Europe an absolute hell-hole.

Despite my deep love of the free market, I’ve always found this chain of thought to be utterly absurd. For starters, the idea that Europe is some kind of hell-hole at all doesn’t seem to line up with reality, as Alex Massie points out:

Never mind that, according to the most recent World Values Survey, Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Malta, Luxembourg, Sweden each reported higher levels of happiness and “life satisfaction” than the United States. That isn’t to say that the US is unhappy, merely that there is more than one route to happiness. And that’s the point: europe (however broadly defined) and the United States are each remarkable success stories permitting a greater percentage of the population than at any point in history has the opportunity to make their own choices about how to lead their lives.

But there’s more to it than this. If “Europeanism” really is that much of a restraint on freedom, one would expect that European nations would have exceedingly tightly restricted economies, with comparatively little economic liberty. Thankfully, that lunatic left-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation has long compiled a statistical ranking of economic freedoms around the world.

In the current iteration of this list, based on data from late 2007 to early 2008, shows the good ol’ USA ranked 6th – right behind Ireland and New Zealand, and just barely ahead of Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, and the UK. But things get even more interesting when you look more closely at the data. After all, the argument seems to be that larger and more expensive government leads to less economic freedom (amongst other problems). And yet, when one looks at measures of economic freedom other than the size of government, one quickly finds that the US is outperformed by numerous European countries and Canada. Canada for instance surpasses the US in things like Fiscal Freedom (ie, taxation), freedom from corruption, business freedom, and trade freedom; Denmark in business freedom (where the Heritage Foundation considers Denmark just about perfect!), investment and financial freedom, property rights, and labor freedom; the UK and Netherlands in investments, property rights, and corruption; Iceland in business freedom, trade freedom, fiscal freedom, property rights, and corruption; and Austria and Belgium also comparing pretty favorably.

Meanwhile, there are a number of governments that seem to score extraordinarily poorly on these measures despite having relatively small governments. In fact, by the Heritage Foundation’s measurements, the US actually has a larger than average government compared to the rest of the globe, but has a far smaller government than most of Western Europe and Canada, most of which – including Sweden, with the third largest government in the world according to Heritage – score in the top 30 most economically free countries in the world. The sole exceptions are Portugal (#53), France (#64), and Italy (#76).

Meanwhile, countries with relatively small governments seem to largely be ranked pretty poorly in terms of overall economic freedom as I previously discussed here. If you rank the countries by size of government (keeping in mind that higher scores equal smaller government), the “best” governments are, in order: Burma, Liberia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and the Central African Republic. None of these are exactly bastions of economic freedom in any other respect.

This isn’t to say that smaller government equates with less economic freedom generally – I don’t think it does, and one can’t ignore that Singapore, Hong Kong, and Chile all have rather small governments combined with quite a bit of economic freedom. Instead, it’s simply to say that there is a complete lack of evidence of any sort that “Europeanism” is a first-class ticket to disorder, totalitarianism, or regulatory hell.

Meanwhile, whatever the flaws of secularism (and in the case of so-called Human Rights Commissions, it’s pretty clear that there are quite a few such flaws), it’s worth noting that Europeans seem to have a closer attachment to their culture and history than just about any part of the US outside the Deep South. Indeed, in France, the desire to preserve that culture and history is probably one of the biggest causes of French restrictions on economic liberty, which results in a level of protectionism that is noticeably higher than the rest of Western Europe (except for Italy).

On the other hand, the idea that the solution to American problems lies in adopting European-style policies (whatever that may mean) is pretty foolish as well, for the simple reason that the U.S. isn’t Europe. We are a far more culturally and ethnically heterogenous society than any European country, we are far larger in terms of both population and area than any Western European country, and – as is the case with any two countries – we have completely different established institutions upon which to base our policies, as Ms. McArdle recently noted.

Regardless, can we please stop pretending like Western Europe is the closest thing to Hell on Earth or, in the alternative, some kind of socialist paradise? It’s neither – instead, it’s just a collection of several different governments that in general seem to have each found a balance between government and liberty that works pretty well for the specific people who are subject to that specific government’s jurisdiction.

Cross-posted at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

  • Jake

    I’ve lived in Europe for six years, and there’s much to admire about its lifestyle, and I’m willing to believe the stats that the majority of folks in Europe are more content than the majority of folks in the U.S.

    That said, Europe has a much more passive population, and I see them often pushed around by their governments to extents that would make the majority of Americans rightfully squawk.

    Whether because of a political or cultural phenomena, or both, Europe’s approach to life’s problems is dramatically more passive than ours–and this may account for their higher level of happiness. After all, you can’t bruise a pillow.

    Europe owns very few rightist parties that aren’t legitimately tarred with racism and general ridiculousness. Unlike our own political machine, most European countries lack a true system of action-reaction, and without it, they have a hard time even totting up the price they pay for its absence.


  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds


    Shhh, you’re going to confuse people with your crazy use of actual facts.

    I just finished 8 months in Italy and found my difficulties there were much less a question of Italian government than with adjusting to a monoculture.

    The government, insofar as I encountered it, was great. They got me a residency visa in a single day. Getting a codice fiscale (Italian SSN) took a couple of hours. Getting my car into the country took one day and cost one Euro. (Getting it back into the US was a two week, $3,000 pain in the butt.) Their postal service is pretty good, their cops are easy-going, and the irritating regulations (absurd business hours for example) are cultural more than governmental.

    And Italy is normally not considered a model of efficiency.

    I’ve also spent time in France which is a beautiful and rather well-run country. Drive an American turnpike and then a French one: the contrast is embarrassing. As are comparisons between French airports and train stations and their US counterparts.

  • Mike A.

    I have a general question for this discussion, not sure if there’s an interest, but I can try. With the skyrocketing price of higher education in this country, why don’t we see more Americans going to Europe for a university education? The cost is a very small fraction of what it is here, yet the standards appear comparable. For example, University of Leuven in Belgium costs approximately 600 euros for a school year.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds


    No one does universities as well as we do. And of course Americans tend not to have any languages. A university-bound kid in France almost certainly speaks English. So does a university-bound kid in the US.

  • TerenceC

    I have lived in France, Germany, Austria, Ireland, Scotland, Israel, and South Africa. The US is a great country by any standards. However, our cell phone infrastructure is archaic, religion takes way too much precedence in political discussions, we don’t educate our children to the degree we should, repair our roads, bridges or ports unless they really need it. What can’t you say about the medical system? Our TV news is a disgrace, we spend too much time in the gym and not enough time in the library. We spend way too much on national defense – and way too little on national peace. We are a nation of laws but those same laws are ignored if it’s convenient. By and large we are over stimulated and under informed as a population. The one thing all those other happy countries have in common is the fact that the USA underwrites their national defense and gives them all the ability to have the lifestyle they desire. I wonder if that would still be the case if they were forced to “belly-up” with the full cost of their national defense on top of all their other social programs?

  • Mike A.


    “No one does universities as well as we do”

    I appreciate your response to my post, but I’m not sure I wholly agree with this statement. The industry I work in imports many highly educated foreigners, with which I work closely. I have found differences between all nations in the manner in which they educate, but I have found that European graduates to be similarly educated as we are. Understand that I don’t mean to say other nations are not as well-educated (many highly-educated asians have a wealth of information), but to say that European’s thought processes and problem solving methods are similar to our own.

    I would also propose that a US student who attends college in Europe has more value to companies working in a global economy. Unlike others in the world, US students tend to stay within the US.

    I wonder if our universities, which were once the ultimate in educational excellence, are being challenged by other nation’s schools. Yes I agree the name of a US school carriers more weight, but the value (dollars per unit of learned knowledge…however that would be universally measured) is low.

  • ExiledIndependent

    Logically, the emphasis a culture places on individual achievement *should* be inversely proportional to “life satisfaction.” Satisfied=complacent, and we are a nation built on the idea of continuous improvement, attaining a higher degree of accomplishment in our individually chosen pursuits. For those of us who haven’t achieved self-actualization, we should absolutely harbor a certain amount of “life dissatisfaction.” Personally, I don’t want to live in a country where happiness is defined by how much is handed to me, but rather by how much I can accomplish through my own skills, wit, and effort.

    A side note about the secularism paragraph. The purpose of a spiritual element in daily life isn’t a connection to a culture or a history, but to a Diety. My guess is that you’re a pretty secular guy, which would make it easy to make the (mis)connection you made. Religion is all about tradition and blah blah blah. Not so.

    Overall, I think the point is that the USA exists as a reaction to the large governments of Europe; the nation was created to be a place where government is as small as possible, where individual, God-given freedoms like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are more important than being “taken care of” by a government. And, with the increasingly mobile nature of our world, it should be relatively easy for an American who prefers a more European culture to, well, move and join a European culture.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds


    Those are good points. Our universities are usually top-rated in surveys, but I wonder what metric is used. Interesting question.

    It still leaves the parochial nature of many Americans. We learn fewer languages and are less well-traveled than a typical western European. Of course it’s a bit easier to get from the center of France to Italy or from the UK to the Netherlands than it is for an American to travel abroad (setting Canada aside). But as a cultural thing we just seem less interested.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds


    I don’t see Europeans feeling as if life is handed to them by their government. They still show up for work, as a rule, and whether it’s an Airbus plant in France or a Nokia design facility in Finland or a Sandoz lab in Switzerland or a BMW factory in Germany they seem perfectly capable of working as well as we do.

    What they don’t do is live in fear that they won’t be able to get health care for their kids.

    Americans live out their lives about three paychecks away from a homeless shelter and medical bankruptcy. Maybe that’s why some Europeans are happier. God or no God, most people want to be able to get their kids to a dentist or a doctor and know that losing a job doesn’t mean moving to a cardboard box.

  • Mark Thompson

    You seem to miss the point here, which is that there is a staggering lack of evidence that European governments, especially Western European governments, are more intrusive and less limited than the US. There is also a staggering lack of evidence to demonstrate that smaller government equates to limited government. Instead, the evidence makes pretty clear that Western European governments, with the exception of France, Italy, and perhaps Portugal are remarkably limited, just in different ways than the US.

    As for me, I am quite happy here in the US. I just wish that ideologues of both varieties would try to understand what European governments actually do rather than relying on some sort of caricature that either paints Europe as some kind of socialist heaven or hell. It’s a hell of a lot less socialist than either the American Left or the American Right would like to think.

    The US should not try to be like Europe, because the US isn’t Europe; but by the same token, the idea that the US would become some kind of a socialist hell-hole if it were more like Europe ignores the fact that Europe isn’t actually a socialist hell-hole.

    As for the whole issue of secularism, my point was simply that secularism doesn’t really seem to have much to do one way or another with a decline or improvement in overall social mores or with more government intrusion into individual liberties.

    Simply put, if one is going to make the argument that “Europeanism” equates to less economic and personal freedom, one should probably have some evidence for that conclusion beyond simply saying “France.” Unfortunately, the evidence suggests the complete opposite conclusion – and the data I’m using to support that conclusion is the Heritage Foundation’s.

  • Jimmy the Dhimmi

    “Europeanism” in its practical application may be overhyped by right wing pundits; However, I think Mark Steyn’s main thesis may turn out to be correct in the long run.

    The high static unemployment, overloaded welfare system, dramatically declining birth rates amongst the native population, and the general sense of political correctness amongst the beurocratic governing class – combined with a huge increase in population from Islamic immigration and lack of integration – will result in enormous social unrest in the future.


    losing a job doesn’t mean moving to a cardboard box.

    Seriously, is that really what happens here? Wouldn’t that make Americans significantly less happy if it was? We are still #6 after all.

    We certainly have been living above our means for the past 10-15 years or so. Maybe if we wait a few more, all of this inflation caused by massive goverment spending, poor monitary policy and over-regulation will catch up to us and we will be living in boxes.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds

    I think when one looks at the future of Europe rather than the present a lot of what Steyn talks about is a very, very big concern. The demographic issue combined with Europe’s inability to absorb outsiders is a time bomb.

    And yes, sometimes losing a job in this country does mean moving to a cardboard box. More often it means loss of medical care, often leading to bankruptcy.

    I don’t think Europe’s birth rate problem has much if anything to do with their tax rate or government. Mostly what I hear from people are complaints about a lack of housing, urbanization, lack of child raising support from European men, refusal to adapt to the needs of child-rearing in two-income families. In other words it may be more cultural than economic.

  • Michaelc

    I have often found it to be the case that the people who are the most convinced that the USA is the greatest country in the world are the ones who have never been anywhere else.

  • Jonny

    The reason the right wing can get away with the nonsense they say about Europe is that so few Americans really have any idea of what things are like in Europe.

    In school we are force fed this patriotic insanity that America is the only “free” place on earth. I even hear people who otherwise seem to be reasonably intelligent and knowledgeable break that out in conversation sometimes. They’ll say that we’re the only country that has civil liberties.

    Of course what makes that most ludicrous is that Americans actually have less civil liberties than people in many other countries. And what about the fact that America puts so many of it’s people in prison?

  • Nick Benjamin

    A few pints.

    1) Europe does not mooch off US defense spending. The only group threatening to kill Europeans is Al Qaeda, and European police forces are defending against that fine. Russia is another potential threat, but only if it has money. And most of it’s income is derived from selling Europeans natural gas.

    More to the point several European nations actually spend significant amounts on their military. The Greeks spend 10% of GDP on theirs, and Sweden is one of a handful of countries that managed to design fighter jets.

    2) Our budget is inflated by two things: warplanes and health care. No non-US-Navy has more than one aircraft carrier. We have a half-dozen. Super-Carriers. Each is part of a Carrier Group containing more combat aircraft than most Air Forces, and more Naval firepower than any other Navy. In the entire world. Then there’s the bill for thousands of $50 million fighter jets, fuel for those jets, etc. So we could probably cut the Military’s budget significantly and still be militarily dominant.

    Our government spends more on Health Care than any other government in the world. That’s right. In the real world Socialist health care systems cost the government less than our free-market system, and tend to get much better results. This is true for one simple reason: the Government has a motive to reduce expenses.

    OTOH a private hospital that makes Million$ treating birth defects in it’s neo-natal department has no incentive to prevent birth defects. HMOs have an incentive to pevent brth defects, but they also have a major disincentive. Prevention would cost them money but protect everyone. Therefor they’d lose a major competitive advantage.

    So we could probably spend less than Europe is a) we decided to only buy 100 Kick-ass Fighter Jets, and mothballed all but two Carrier Groups, and b) fixed health care. Admittedly b) will take decades, but hey.

    3) Overall government size as proportion of the GDP is a really dumb way to measure economic freedom.

    Somalia has no government. Government expenditures are zero. This means there are no police. If somebody goes back on a deal you have to hire thugs to enforce it. And he’s hired thugs too. That ain’t freedom, it’s war.

    OTOH Western countries have courts to resolve contract disputes. They have established financial markets. In theory they have regulators making sure AIG doesn’t do stupid shit and go boom. They have infrastructure like railroads so a businessman can buy grain in North Dakota and sell it in Detroit. Schools so the businessman can hire literate employees. All this costs government money.

    4) There is no rational reason for most people to go to American Universities. McGill in Montreal is superior to most American Universities, and a degree from there only costs $20-$25k US for non-Canadians. That includes housing, food, and a couple grand for play. For all four years. Which means you could work your way through McGill, have no debt, and still earn a degree from a prestigious institution.

    At my Alma Mater (the University of Michigan) an in-state student spends nearly $44k in tuition alone. Two of Michigan’s Budget schools — Grand Valley State University, and Wayne State University — charge more than $30k for four years tuition.

    So if I’d actually been on the hook for tuition at one of Michigan’s public Universities I would have been really stupid to pick one. Any of them. But I wasn’t so I only spent $5-$10k more of my parent’s money than I would have at McGill.