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.

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