June 04, 2005

European Policies that American Liberals Support

In David Brooks’s New York Times column of June 2, he claims:

Events in Western Europe are slowly discrediting large swaths of American liberalism.

Most of the policy ideas advocated by American liberals have already been enacted in Europe: generous welfare measures, ample labor protections, highly progressive tax rates, single-payer health care systems, zoning restrictions to limit big retailers, and cradle-to-grave middle-class subsidies supporting everything from child care to pension security. And yet far from thriving, continental Europe has endured a lost decade of relative decline.

Mr. Brooks tries to conflate Europe’s problems with American liberal ideas. But the policies that have led to stagnation in Europe are not Democratic, they are Socialist. There is a world of difference between the two.

France, for example, has implemented a number of socialist policies:

  • A 35 hour workweek
  • An annual tax on citizens’ net worth
  • Pay-outs—not tax breaks—to parents based on the number of children they have
  • Subsidies for theatre workers so they only have to work six months a year
  • Depending on the job, annual vacations allotments of up to ten weeks per year

I could go on. It is socialist laws like these that have created economic problems in Europe by making it very expensive to hire workers. These policies are far to the political left of American Democrats, who are generally more conservative than almost any mainstream Western European political party. Indeed, look at President Clinton’s record: he reformed welfare, balanced the budget, reduced the size of the government (both in number of employees and in spending), and generally presided over economic growth.

So Mr. Brooks is a little mixed up. As a result, he ends up with a pretty strange assortment of scapegoats. “Zoning restrictions to limit big retailers?” Think of all the jobs that could be created if only Wal-Mart could set up shop next to the Eiffel Tower.

But if American liberals and conservatives alike criticize socialist policies, we should also admit that Europe does some things better than we do. Here are four examples:

Meritocracy: The Economist reports that in many European countries it is now easier to climb the social ladder through hard work than it is in America. And that was before the Republican Congress abolished the inheritance tax. George Bush’s policies are helping children of privilege (like himself) start life ahead of everyone else. Each American should have a fair shot at success from the time he or she is born. That’s why we call it the American dream.

Healthcare: America pays more than twice as much per capita for our health care than many European countries, yet 45 million people lack health care in the US, and our life expectancy is below the OECD average. 11% of American children are uninsured. If you value life, and not just for the unborn, you know that we can do better.

Leisure time: On average, Americans only receive twelve vacation days per year, and only take 9 of them! In Britain, which has an excellent economy, each worker gets 23 days off per year, and Brits use 22.5 of them. Would our productivity suffer a little if we took more time off? Maybe. But if so, the increased quality of life would be well worth it.

Energy: Europe doesn’t outrageously subsidize its oil industry the way we do. Therefore people drive more fuel-efficient cars, there is more public transportation, and less dependence on Arab oil states. We too, need an energy policy that emphasizes conservation, self-sufficiency and innovation.

So indeed, there are European policies that we could learn from. It’s a pity that Mr. Books, too busy fabricating liberal straw men, can’t recognize them.

By Will Friedman in Politics | Permalink  | 


Excellent commentary! In addition to Brooks being totally off the mark on why many European economies are struggling, there is among American conservatives a constant conflation between health of the economy and health of the citizenry. Yes, French citizens are fed up with their high unemployment rates, but being unemployed in France does not lead to the severe financial instability and stress that being unemployed in the U.S. causes. And if our economy is headed for the disaster that Argentina has suffered (as suggested by the Brookings AND Cato Institutes), unemployment in the U.S. could eventually mean starvation.

Posted by: Stephanie | Jun 4, 2005 5:00:20 PM

If only governments would pick and choose the policies that do work, like those you mention, and discard the ones that don't, without getting all hung up on which political ideology claims them.

Posted by: SheaNC | Jun 4, 2005 10:39:24 PM

Agreed! Good social policy should not politicized. (It will never not be, of course.)

Especially striking to me is our subsidizing of oil. Everyone is astonished to find out how much gas costs in Europe - like they are doing something wrong. It is shameful that some enterprising American company has not taken the lead in jettisoning our current reliance on fossil fuels to come up with something better that will finally allow the Middle East to deal with it's own problems without putting oil/greed in the equation. (Sadly, they would get NO support from the current administration, as we know.)

Posted by: dks | Jun 6, 2005 5:03:02 PM

Each of your perceived advantages of Europe is based upon faulty reasoning.

Meritocracy. The Economist is misleading. Europe's standard of living has fallen so low that if anyone improves their income, it means a big jump in the percentages. Our standard of living is much higher so jumps in our income are reflected in smaller percentage increases

The EU is experiencing a brain drain so large that it is terrifying to government leaders. The best and brightest of Europe are coming to America because it is much easier to move up the economic ladder and they want access to our health care system. The only people not moving up in America our those frozen in place by our welfare system.

Healthcare. Every time the left mentions uninsured people, the number goes up by 5,000,000. The truth is that only 30 million do not have private health insurance. 50% of those could afford insurance but choose not to buy it. Most of those are under 30.

The remainder receives free health care through Medicaid, emergency rooms, free clinics and charitable hospitals. The poorest person in America receives better health care than anyone on European government health plans. The queues are very long for treatment in those countries. That has created a huge flight from government programs into private health insurance.

Leisure time. The Brits have a lower standard of living than we do. If you saw the government housing that the average Brit has to live in, you would not say they have a better quality of life.

Outrageously subsidies for the oil industry. That is an often told left-wing myth based up the left's total ignorance of our economic system. We do not subsidize the oil industry. They are allowed to deduct the cost of drilling just as other businesses can deduct their cost of doing business.

Gas is $5.50 a gallon in Europe because the governments add $4.25 tax on each gallon of gas. Our taxes are about $0.60 a gallon.

What is subsidized by the EPA is the $2.5 billion eco-industry that gets richer and richer by making up these myths.

Europe is only instructive to America because it tells us what not to do. Americans would not put up with the low standard of living that is forced upon the people by left-wing European governments.

Posted by: Jake | Jun 7, 2005 6:39:19 AM

"Americans would not put up with the low standard of living that is forced upon the people by left-wing European governments."

It depends on what Americans you are talking to. My standard of living was lower in America than it is here in France. My healthcare was nil in America as I couldn't afford the insurance or the medication that the doctors said I would need the rest of my life. Yes, it depends on what Americans you are talking to.

Posted by: Frenchie | Jun 8, 2005 1:49:51 PM

"The poorest person in America receives better health care than anyone on European government health plans"

You must be joking right. Healthcare in the EU is at least equally good as in the States, at a much lower price.

And for the waiting queues, come on! In belgium, where I live, I have never even heard of waiting queues for medical treatments. You can get any quality treatment here at the moment you need it, and without being bancrupt afterwards.

Posted by: Rik | Jun 17, 2005 3:17:25 PM

dks has no idea about health care in Europe: the delivery system is still in the hands of private practicioners and it functions quite well.

I do agree that the meritocracy system is a bit lagging in Europe: a recent study of education in Germany showed that the parents' social standing played a major role in students' levels of accomplishment.

The US also subsidizes its oil industry by providing it with free military protection in unstable parts of the world.

Posted by: Paul A. Kachur | Jul 26, 2005 4:30:50 AM

Seeing as DKS didn't mention health care, I'm not sure it's fair to say she knows nothing about it.

But back to energy subsidies for a moment: Seeing as DKS didn't mention health care, it's not exactly fair to say she knows nothing about it.

But back to energy subsidies for a moment: a previous commenter claims that “we do not subsidize the oil industry…the EPA is a 2.5 billion eco-industry that gets richer and richer by making up these myths.”

That is simply incorrect. This commenter has not read the study that was linked to in the above article, which showed that in 1995 alone, non-military subsidies totaled between $5.2 and $11.9 billion, and in that year defense of oil supplies cost another $10.5 to 23.3 billion. Of course these expenses are much higher ten years later.

Even if we were to accept his fantastic assertion about the EPA, these figures certainly represent subsidies. It’s true that Europeans pay higher taxes on their gas…but creating and maintaining highway networks costs a lot of money. So does maintaining the strategic petroleum reserve. So does defense of oil supplies. Americans too are paying for these things—paying more in fact than Europeans—, but the price is hidden in other taxes.

Speaking of military costs, it’s fair to point out as well that we would not have spent more than $200 billion invading and then re-building Zimbabwe, which has a ruthless dictator who oppresses his own people. For the sake of the world economy, we need to protect our energy supplies, and we do. But does the commenter really believe that there is no good strategic reason for the United States to lessen our dependence on foreign oil?

Posted by: Overseas Will | Jul 27, 2005 7:30:50 AM

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