The U.S.’s Misplaced Admiration for Europe

The left lauds its social programs; the right hails its nativists. But the Continent is far from a model for America.

Thanks, but no.

Photographer: Jonathan Bachman/getty images

People in the U.S. have a special fascination with Europe. It seems like many Americans still think of that continent as their parent civilization -- an example to be admired, a model to be emulated. I think it’s time to consider whether this admiration has been taken too far.

For the American left, Europe’s appeal comes from its social democracy. European’s government-run health systems deliver care comparable to the U.S.’s semi-private system, and at much lower cost. European college tuition is a fraction of what it is in the U.S. France’s generous child-care system dramatically eases the lives of working parents. Add paid parental leave, government-mandated vacation time, and other government-mandated benefits and services, and you have what looks like paradise to many American progressives.

The Bernie Sanders campaign harnessed this pro-European sentiment. During the Democratic primary, Sanders regularly cited Scandinavia, particularly Denmark, as his model for the U.S. The Danish prime minister protested that his country isn’t as socialist as Sanders and his supporters seemed to believe, but this did little to deter starry-eyed young American liberals from imagining how much better we’d be under a Scandinavian system.

For the right, it’s Europe’s insularity and cultural homogeneity that inspires admiration. The most obvious example of this is Brexit. Donald Trump effusively praised the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union, and his supporters regularly draw parallels between Trump and “Leave” proponents. Many of Trump’s followers see his campaign as a crusade against “globalism,” especially immigration. Many of Trump’s so-called alt-right base, the most extreme of his followers, dream of making the U.S. an ethnically homogeneous white nation. The appeal of Europe, as well as the parallel to some Brexit supporters, is clear. For much of the American right, “Europe” means battening down the national hatches and returning to older definitions of identity and nationhood.

As a result, much of American politics looks like a debate between which European model the U.S. should follow -- the cuddly, social-democratic Europe, or the insular, homogeneous Europe?

I say, maybe neither.

For all its advantages, Europe isn’t a superior civilization. First of all, it’s mostly poorer than the U.S. Here are some gross domestic product numbers:

Richer Than Most

GDP per capita in 2015 international dollars

Source: International Monetary Fund

Recently, some top economists have tried to modify GDP to take inequality and health into account. This is a subjective exercise -- it isn’t clear how much people in rural Kansas are hurt by the gap with the rich in New York City -- but even so, they conclude that the leading European countries are a bit behind the U.S.

In recent decades, the continent has been plagued by bad economic policy. A long period of stagnation in the late 20th century, termed “Eurosclerosis,” opened up the GDP gap between Europe and the U.S. Unemployment rates were high and productivity growth was slow. Since the 2008 crisis, a different kind of problem has taken hold -- austerity, combined with an overly tight monetary policy, made Europe’s suffering worse than the U.S.’s, even though the crisis began in the U.S. Fierce battles between European Union member states underscored the continent’s lack of political unity, and caused many to conclude that the euro had been a huge blunder.

Nor is Europe the model of ethnic homogeneity that many of Trump’s more fervent supporters imagine. While Europeans may all look “white” to the undiscriminating American eye, in fact Europeans tend to define their identity differently. Many Germans don’t think of themselves as the same race as Slavs. Much of Britain’s post-Brexit racism has been directed not at Middle Eastern or African immigrants, but at eastern Europeans.

Europe’s splintered nature -- strongly exacerbated by linguistic differences -- is probably a big reason for its history of chronic warfare. European countries were almost continuously at war from the Middle Ages until 1945, with massive, continent-wide conflicts breaking out every few decades. In comparison, the U.S. has been a bastion of stability, with only one civil war to its name.

So in terms of both economics and identity politics, Europe has big weaknesses. Meanwhile, there are other models out there for the U.S. to learn from.

One example is Canada, which has demonstrated that it’s possible to build a multi-ethnic, open, tolerant society while retaining strong social harmony. Crime rates are low, political divisions are less extreme, and the country’s friendly, accepting culture is legendary.

Another example is Japan. That country has built infrastructure and cities that should be the envy of the world, while fostering a social egalitarianism that few who have never been to the country can appreciate.

But at the end of the day, the best model for the U.S is the U.S. itself. Since its founding, the U.S. has often been a global trailblazer, not a follower. It was the first major country to implement representative democracy and large-scale immigration. Its per-capita income overtook Europe’s leading nations as early as the 1920s. It was in the U.S., not Europe, that the airplane, the personal computer and most of the internet was invented, along with countless other technologies. In the 20th century, the U.S. built a highway system and a university system that are still the envy of the world.

In the social sphere, the U.S. has long been a pacesetter in areas like universal suffrage and birthright citizenship. It showed that ethnic divisions could be erased within a few generations with the right mix of economic opportunity, government tolerance and cultural open-mindedness.

So the U.S. is best thought of not as an extension of the European continent, but as something altogether different. Instead of mimicking Europe, the U.S. should be leading.

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

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