Sonntag, 15. Januar 2012

Why is Europe a dirty word?

The NYT columnist Nicholas D. Kristof published an article under the above title in reaction to complaints made by Republicans in the present American election campaign. The Republican side warns that President Obama wants to "Europeanize" America and that "to make America more like Europe would poison the very spirit of America".

Mr. Kristof invited comments to his article and my comments are below.

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I am Austrian, but half-American in the sense that I was educated at Harvard and spent half of my adult life with Chicago as my home base.

Your insights are very good. If there is one mistake, it’s that there are no “Europeans” just like there are really no “Americans” but I guess we all know what you mean when you refer to “Europeans”.

I had returned to Austria at age 41, after having lived in 6 other countries. It was like landing on a different planet. The shared belief that the collective good was of greater value than individual freedom. A society where the individual learned from his early years onwards that someone owes him something: the parents, the teachers, the school, the university, the employer, society at large, etc. etc. but where the individual was not taught that, first and foremost, he owes something to himself.

The differentiation between the “Old Europe” and the “New Europe” is very fitting (with all the bad things Rumsfeld said, this was one of his better expressions). Personally, I would list under the “New Europe” the Scandinavian countries and the former communist countries (except Russia). Switzerland is neither old nor new; it is simply a completely rational society where even politicians act rationally.  No surprise that Switzerland shows top results in key economic areas (infrastructure; unemployment, health and old age insurance; high defense spending and yet a budget surplus with a declining sovereign debt; etc.). The surprise is that Switzerland accomplishes all that with very low taxes!

And then I would also list the UK as part of the “New Europe”. Margaret Thatcher was not so wrong when she said that “in my lifetime, all the problems have come from Continental Europe and all the solutions from the English-speaking world”. Compared with the British, members of the “Old Europe” often behave like they had never experienced the Period of Enlightenment.

Having identified the “New Europe”, the “Old Europe” is that part which is left over. Taking Romney’s statements word-by-word, they are of course silly but his general message is not wrong. The “Old Europe”, with all its intellectual arrogance and feelings of god-given superiority, with all its self-focus and self-orientation, has been trying to outlaw the basic economic principle that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Instead, in “Old Europe” one believes that the best way to provide lunch for all is to provide it free of charge; that social welfare will only come about when the government organizes it; that betterment of society can be achieved even without reasonable competition of thought and performance.

The result of all of this can be found in the following prevalent traits: strife for consensus even if it means meeting at the lowest possible denominator; a virtually non-existing leadership culture; never-ending analyses but no decisions; limited development of personal potential and creativity; etc. The dream of many people is to become a public servant, or any other position which offers security of career and income and excludes risk as much as possible. Security is a virtue and risk is a danger. Or even: security should be rewarded and risk be punished.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, had he stayed in Austria, would today be a small-town policeman, a construction worker or something like that. Before he reached social standing by marrying into the Kennedy Clan, Austrians thought of him as a kind of proletarian muscle guy who was lucky to have gone to the US because “only in the country of unlimited opportunities was his success possible” (making it almost sound like his success was not deserved). Austrians would never put the question as follows: “Should it not be one of the foremost goals of a society to provide unlimited opportunities to everyone?”

“Old Europe”, deep down, dislikes America; there is significant anti-Americanism. Because of oversocialization, one tends to dislike people and/or societies who stand for strength. One is suspicious of charismatic leaders because “we already had such a leader before and that worked out terribly”.

To this very date, countries like Germany and Austria still use the funds of the Marshall Plan to support their economies (ERP-funds). One could reasonably argue that those funds, instead of supporting some of the strongest economies in the world, should now be transferred to the Southern Periphery so that they can reconstruct those economies the same way Germany and Austria reconstructed theirs after WWII. Well, make that suggestion and be prepared for the reaction you will receive!

That is one, of many, differences between “America” and the “Old Europe” and it would indeed be a shame if Americans as a society started behaving like “Old European Societies” behave.

After about 5 years back in Austria, I unloaded my frustrations into a paper titled “The unintended consequences of the welfare state”. It was submitted to the "1st International Gary S. Becker Competition” and was awarded the first prize. Below is a link to it.