To My European Friends: Advice on How to Understand America

Europeans embrace the basic principles of progressivism. This means that they believe in the power of government not only to right wrongs, but to guide society, to take the lead, to conduct activity in the proper paths, to oversee operations and ensure outcomes for its citizens. At bottom, progressivism views society as a large organization that needs to be properly managed. Autonomous activities need to be steered in the right direction. The inevitable conflicts of interest that arise from spontaneous activity need to be counteracted. Government is needed, not only to intervene in the inevitable conflicts of a spontaneous order but to keep them from arising in the first place. It is the guiding hand.

Europeans take this view and apply it to the world around them. Where it is not practiced, they feel it should be. This is particularly the case with regard to America, where this view, rather than being accepted as a matter of course, is itself the subject of intense debate and conflict. In America, progressivism is no fait accompli but a competing vision struggling to assert itself against an alternative – the peculiarly American approach to life that so strikingly contrasts with it.

So, the American vision is not one in which government is looked to as the solution to societal problems; in this vision, government – by which we mean civil government, the state – is viewed not as the solution but as the problem. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help” is the way Ronald Reagan encapsulated it. In this view, the state is simply to provide the conditions for the citizens to flourish; it is to ensure equal opportunity for all.

As such, progressivism is a foreign import to the United States. The difference lies in the different understanding of “equality.” The American vision is one of equal opportunity; the European vision is one of equal outcome. In Europe, equality needs to be realized materially, not merely formally; and that requires government control.

This system works, after a fashion, in Europe. It is the result of centuries of accommodation and adaptation by increasingly centralized, interventionist government activity, first embodied in the institution of monarchy. France was the country that carried out this centralization and interventionism in greater degree than any other; in the French Revolution, it was given a new raison d’être, but the mechanism was inherited, as shown by Alexis de Tocqueville in his The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Strikingly, the new rationale was the reverse of the old one: France went from a regime of differentiated privilege to one of absolute equality, in which differentiation was in principle intolerable.

And so equality, and government intervention to guarantee that equality, became the ideal, not only for France but for Europe as a whole, everywhere where the Revolutionary cum Napoleonic armies were triumphant. And even beyond that – all of Europe was made over by this new system. The so-called Restoration, by which monarchies were re-established across Europe, did not do away with the Revolution; rather, it confirmed the Revolution. The Restoration, when it came in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon, simply took over the legacy of the Revolution and applied a monarchical window-dressing to it. The essence was equality, not privilege, and the mechanism was dirigisme, not laissez-faire.

As such, interventionist bureaucracy is not something to be established in Europe; it is already there, and has been for quite some time. And because of this, it has developed some proficiency in what it does. It provides cradle-to-grave security, government-financed education, universal – or at least affordable – health care, and the like. Whereas in America all of these provisions are problematic.

Why should they be problematic? Why not just introduce them and stop making a problem of it? It is this incredulity that explains the near-universal support for Democrats over Republicans among Europeans. For them, it is simply a matter of willpower, in line with what is natural to them: government leadership.

In European eyes, America is the Wild West. It is the culture of cowboys, the culture of guns; the Second Amendment to the US Constitution – “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – may as well have been written by a Martian. It is the culture of every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost.

But that is not how Americans view their own country. Instead, they view it as the refuge that was established centuries before, precisely to escape European governmental overreach and control of everyone’s lives. America does not share the heritage of centralized administration of the society through the instrumentality of government. For this reason, it does not share the conviction that government is to efface social differences and provide for people’s needs and wants.

The President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, made this clear in his illuminating words to the US Congress in 2007:

To the millions of men and women who came from every country in the world and who, with their own hands, their intelligence and their hearts, built the greatest nation in the world, America did not say, “Come, and everything will be given to you.” Rather, she said, “Come, and the only limits to what you will be able to achieve will be those of your own courage, your boldness and your talent.” … Here in your country, on this soil, both the humblest and the most illustrious citizens alike know that nothing is owed to them and that everything has to be earned. That is what constitutes the moral value of America. America did not teach men the idea of freedom; she taught them how to practice it, how to practice freedom.

Indeed: freedom, not equality, is the leading idea of the American alternative. This being the case, government leadership to realize a condition of equality is anathema, for freedom requires just the opposite: that government do nothing to obstruct freedom, liberty under law, especially to undo outcomes that are precisely the result of that freedom.

Nevertheless, the European approach has been making inroads. The history of the US in the 20th century is largely the history of government expansion into hitherto sacrosanct areas of life. The two world wars, sandwiching the Great Depression and FDR’s New Deal, went far to establish the European approach at the heart of political life, and there has been inexorable expansion since then, even during the years of hiatus embodied in Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

The election of Donald Trump threw a monkey wrench into this inexorable progression of progressivism, but the prospect of a victory by Joe Biden and the Democrats in the 2020 elections has caused hope to spring up anew in European breasts, of a triumph of the European way over the American alternative, once and for all. For the Democrats have it in their sights simply to overthrow every institutional barrier to a progressive regime and to establish such in perpetuity, one in which the American alternative would be relegated to the ash heap of history.

But what such well-wishers do not recognize is that one cannot simply transplant one’s institutions into foreign soil. Even if Europe were to invade America like George W. Bush invaded Iraq, it would not have any more success in imposing its ways onto a stubborn, intransigent populace.

Americans are used to government intervention and interference, but they are not used to sitting around, waiting for government to take the lead, the way Europeans are. Americans are used to fending for themselves and providing for themselves: it is their inheritance, from forefathers seeking to establish liberty for themselves and their posterity in the face of impositional government. They suffer government interventionism in the way that farmers suffer swarms of locusts or bouts of blight – they grit their teeth and endure it.

This has caused a unique form of bureaucracy to develop in the United States, something which would be unrecognizable at least to the residents of the northern European countries. I enjoy telling my Dutch friends that they are the beneficiaries of the one of the great miracles of the modern world – a government and a bureaucracy in which funds appropriated and earmarked for certain goals and activities are actually spent on those certain goals and activities. This does not happen elsewhere in the world. Elsewhere in the world, those monies disappear into private offshore bank accounts or go toward paying off political benefactors.

This is not only the case in developing countries, in which such corruption is probably the number-one reason those countries make no progress in terms  of economic development. It is also the case in the United States. The amount of money already spent by the government is astronomical by comparison with other countries.

For instance, education spending. Spending on public education (primary and secondary schools) came to $13,600 per pupil in the US, 39% more than the average across OECD countries. By contrast, Germany spent $11,700 per pupil, the Netherlands $11,500 (“Education Expenditures by Country”). But pupils in both of those countries scored higher or significantly higher in science, mathematics, and reading, than students in the US (“U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries”).

Both spending and performance vary significantly from state to state as well. Utah, Florida, and Indiana, for example, spent relatively little and performed relatively well. In terms of performance, Utah was ranked no. 18, Florida, no. 22, and Indiana no. 15 (“States with the Best & Worst School Systems”) while spending only $7,628, $9,346, and $10,262 per pupil, respectively. By contrast, Alaska, Rhode Island, and Hawaii were ranked no. 48, no. 27, and no. 31 in terms of performance, while spending $17,726, $16,121, and $15,242, respectively (spending data from “2018 Public Elementary-Secondary Education Finance Data”). Where does all that money go?

The contrast is even starker with a city by city comparison. New York City, for example, spent an astonishing $25,199 per pupil. Despite this massive amount, “recent state test results indicate that Big Apple taxpayers aren’t getting much of a bang for their bucks…. Just 46.7 percent of students in grades 3 to 8 scored at proficient levels in English on state exams this past year and even fewer — a dismal 42.7 percent — hit their marks in math, according to state data” (“NYC spends double the national average on education, has little to show for it”).

The fact of the matter is, government in the United States is horrendously inefficient and shot through with corruption. That miracle I spoke of above, whereby in the Netherlands monies earmarked for various ends actually gets spent on those ends, is not true for the US. Public monies go to favored constituencies and political benefactors; not very much ends up where it was supposed to go. In the Netherlands, money for road repair goes to road repair, where potholes are nonexistent; in the US, it goes somewhere, but not to road repair, at least if the frequency of potholes is any measure. The push for universal health care, by which is meant government-run health care “like they do in Europe” conjures up images of the Division of Motor Vehicles, a byword for Kafkaesque time-consuming bureaucracy. California was once a byword for competence and efficiency. Nowadays it tells the story of a “very troubled bullet train project,” which “reflects the decline of managerial competence in state government.” The project is “emblematic of a larger malaise: the erosion of competence in a state government that once prided itself on doing big things well” (“California’s Crisis of Competence”).

The fact of the matter is, in the US, “Government isn’t an efficient delivery system; it’s a leach-field pipe with Smith at one end and Jones at the other and holes every couple of inches with thousands of bureaucrats sluicing all the way along…. America is not a society comprising two groups—one that has ‘acquired too much’ and one that has ‘not exercised equal industry and skill’—but a society dominated by a third group, a government bureaucracy that has ‘acquired too much’ and, to add insult to financial injury, is not required to ‘exercise equal industry.’” (Mark Steyn, After America, p. 87).

As Tucker Carlson explains, the American ruling class is uniquely incompetent. “In a healthy society, decades of obvious failures by elites would force a change of ideas or a change of leadership. Neither has happened. The same class of lawmakers, journalists, and business chieftains holds power, despite their dismal record. America now has not only one of the least impressive ruling classes in history, but also the least self-aware. They have no idea how bad they are” (Ship of Fools, p. 22). Not only is it incompetent, but is also smugly incompetent, and astoundingly out of touch with the people it rules over. “Our new ruling class doesn’t care, not simply about American citizens, but about the future of the country itself. They view America the way a private equity firm sizes up an aging industrial conglomerate: as something outdated they can profit from. When it fails, they’re gone. They’ve got money offshore and foreign passports at home. Our rulers have no intention of staying for the finale. Countries can survive war and famines and disease. They cannot survive leaders who despise their own people” (p. 23).

In sum: “Our leaders are fools, unaware that they are captains of a sinking ship” (p. 26).

That America survives, and even thrives, while this set of incompetents “runs” it is testimony to the bedrock on which the country was founded, the backbone that still inheres in its citizenry. But once untune that string – not of degree, but of sturdy self-reliance – and the entire ramshackle construction will come crashing down.

And so, my European friends – be careful what you wish for.