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The European Divide in U.S. Politics

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Senator Marco Rubio may have put his finger on one of the most important divides in the U.S. presidential election.

At a rally in Des Moines this week, the Republican contender said President Barack Obama "wants America to be more like the rest of the world" and "views America as arrogant, a country that needs to be cut down to size." Then he lit into Senator Bernie Sanders, who is in a dead-heat in Iowa with Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side. "Bernie is a good candidate for president ... of Sweden," Rubio said. "I used to say Norway but I got some heat from Norwegians. We don't want to be Europe, we want to be America."

Sanders's campaign pitch relies on pointing out that, unlike Sweden and most of the developed world, the U.S. doesn't provide universal health care as a basic right. His platform includes a promise to introduce 12 weeks of paid family leave for all Americans, a benefit that he says has long been available to Europeans. He's understating the case: Swedes are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave, of which 90 are reserved for the father; Germans are allowed six weeks of leave before the birth and eight to 12 afterward, and they can't be fired if they take time off until the child turns three.

There is a much longer list of benefits that Europeans enjoy, and that Americans might find surprising. Most European countries provide free or almost free higher education, sometimes even to foreigners (that's the case in Germany). The Democrats have proposed similar ideas, though Sanders wants to move faster than Clinton.

They have also proposed a more EU-style, compromise-based foreign policy (which Republicans argue hasn't worked so well for the Europeans themselves) and huge infrastructure projects to catch up with Europe, which has been building roads while the U.S. turned away from such spending. Even in the poorer European countries such as Portugal or Poland, roads are better than in Iowa, where their quality sometimes approaches what I was used to in Ukraine.

To finance his lofty social goals, Sanders is calling for a "tax on Wall Street speculation." Europe has long considered a financial transaction tax, and it may finally decide on it this year, despite opposition from the U.K., whose capital is Europe's financial center.

As someone who lives in Europe, I find it perfectly natural that responsible U.S. politicians should want to Europeanize their country. Given the U.S.'s immense wealth, it doesn't have to be behind European nations in quality of life indices, happiness or life expectancy rankings. It has the biggest economy in the world and controls the the leading global currency, so it can, in theory, afford a better life for its people. This certainly requires a readjustment, but there's very little reason that Americans, who work harder and more productively than people anywhere else, should have to do without the social benefits that Europeans take for granted.

I rather suspect that the Republicans use "Europe" as a curse word because they aren't particularly knowledgeable about European life and rules. Last year, Jeb Bush attacked Rubio for being a frequent no-show at the Senate: "What is it like a French work week? You get like three days where you have to show up?" Never mind that France has one of the highest labor productivity rates in the world despite not working the longest hours. Bush had to apologize, saying with a degree of surprise, "I now know that the average French workweek is actually greater than the German workweek."

He could have looked it up. U.S. politicians can easily discover that what they consider Europe's biggest flaws -- oversized governments and excessive social safety nets -- may not be as fearsome as they think.

It is true that most European countries have higher levels of social spending, and overall public spending, than the U.S. But does that necessarily mean that government in Europe is bigger and more paternalistic? According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development data for 2014, the U.S. expended 8.8 percent of its gross domestic product on public services such as defense and justice, while Germany allocated 6.7 percent of GDP to these needs. Germany, however, spent 12.6 percent of its GDP on programs that benefit individuals -- such as health and education -- while the U.S. only spent 5.9 percent of its output on such programs. 

It's not that European governments are so much "bigger" or more intrusive, but they are trying to achieve different goals.

In addition, although there is more social redistribution in Europe than in the U.S. -- usually by public consensus -- the funds often are channeled through nongovernment institutions. Germany's universal health care is a syndicalist, corporatist system based on collective bargaining, most of it occurring at the state, not the federal level, and it's not part of the government. The U.K.'s great old universities, which charge minimal tuition compared with U.S. colleges, aren't state-owned, though they receive state funding.

Alexis de Toqueville saw U.S. exceptionalism as based on Americans' firm belief in private enterprise, sometimes to the detriment of everything else. Almost 200 years ago, he wrote:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. 

Many Americans would be surprised, but Europeans -- especially in Eastern Europe, where public sending levels often are lower than in the U.S., even though these countries attempt to maintain the basic European social rights -- also believe in leaner government and private initiative. That's sometimes the case even in socialist Nordic countries. The upcoming Finnish experiment with universal basic income -- the next step along the European socialist path -- may actually shrink the government rather than expand it, because the monthly stipend for every Finn is supposed to replace a number of social programs, eliminating the need for their costly administration.

There's common ground to be found between the proponents of small government and even the most socialist-minded U.S. Democrats, such as Sanders. Republicans ought to look past the stereotypes, which, it has to be admitted, Europe often affirms with the the EU's inefficient superstructure. Within individual European countries, decentralization and smart resource allocation merit detailed study by Americans. Germany, for example, has a balanced budget, which many Republicans claim as the foundation of good government.

"We have fallen behind Europe" and "We want to remain America" are excessively doctrinaire positions. Greater social benefits make for happier lives, but stifling, all-regulating bureaucracy kills initiative and breeds corruption. Yet there are ways to reconcile a stronger social safety net and better roads with leaner government. Looking for such solutions would be a worthy bipartisan effort when the election is over. 

Continuing to refuse to look beyond America's borders will only ensure empty slogans, sterile bickering and more divisive elections.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net