So I’m in the Netherlands, as I mentioned a few posts ago, visiting my wife’s family. Visiting Europe is a funny experience for Americans. On the one hand, as Michael Lind recently pointed out on Salon, Americans of every stripe look to Europe for inspiration. On the other hand, we feel a little disdainful, because, you know… cheese-eating surrender-monkeys. Plus as an American you always have a little back-of-the-brain gnawing fear that the oft-cited “rest of the industrialized world,” which regularly trounces us in such measures as infant mortality, math and geography skills, and not listening to televangelists, might also, in fact, be having more fun than we are.
This is huge, because fun, when you get down to it, is the reason Americans resist the European-style welfare state. Look, the world is supposed to be divided along frat-movie lines. Europe is the nerdy, buttoned-down, cautious frat that has polite tea socials and kisses the dean’s ass and gives everybody a decent pension. America, on the other hand, is the kick-ass frat whose members get drunk, put on togas, and hilariously drive a Cadillac through the front window of Mesopotamia! Sure, we’re probably never going to graduate, but goddammit will we have lived high on the hog!
But what if that’s not true? What if we’re fooling ourselves by thinking that we have more freedom and that that makes up for not being able to go to the doctor when your job in the asbestos mine gives you three different kinds of dick cancer? What if Europeans have somehow managed to both have a party and clean up after it? Oh God.
First of all, let’s just dispense with some bullshit. Nobody is advocating for communism. (Well — except for this guy, obviously.)
Nobody likes communism. Communism is what did in the Smurfs. Also Christianity, which as you’ll recall imposed on its believers a system of violently enforced redistribution of wealth. And as for the Soviet Union… well, it’s true that Russians can drink like nobody’s business, which gives the old U.S.S.R. some very minor points as a party state. But the gulags kind of offset that. Plus, they made ridiculous cars. No citizen of a serious party state wants to drive the Zaporozhets.
But all modern states are, to some degree, socialist. According to this analysis of the ratio of public expenditures to GDP, the U.S. economy in 2009 was about 44.7% socialist. This is likely a bump due to things like the stimulus bill and the corporate bailouts, but even under Clinton and George W. Bush we hovered around 33% socialist. Okay, that’s only a bit more than half the socialism of France, which is 61% socialist. But the unavoidable fact is that a third of our economy is in the hands of government bureaucrats. And that’s not likely to change any time soon.
So Americans are socialists — at least until Ron or Rand Paul finally mounts a successful political insurgency and we end up privatizing the Supreme Court and reducing the NSA to three guys with really good hearing. And Europeans are socialists, too. But nobody wants to turn commie. The idea that by spending government money on a modest social safety net we are somehow on the slippery slope to a Kremlin-based economy is simply piffle and ignores the plain history of social spending in the developed world since the end of World War II.
The real question is not capitalism vs. socialism, or whether socialism puts you on the road to коммунизм. The question is, does the system we’ve constructed for ourselves — the American model as it really is, rather than as we like to imagine it — promote freedom and wealth and allow for “the pursuit of happiness” to a greater degree than is possible in Europe?
This turns out to be a hard question to answer. There are some ways in which the Dutch are palpably more free than Americans — and in particular are more free to have a good time. Pot is legal, the drinking age is 16, and prostitution is legal. (Embarrassingly, noticeably legal.) Music is easier to share and cheaper to buy legally online, because, according to Eliot Van Buskirk of Wired magazine:
There’s different rights organizations in Europe that apparently have taken a different stance towards how much they should charge for somebody that streams a song. I’ve heard estimates that they pay a tenth what they would pay to do the same in the States.
And so, we see all kinds of strange differences where our friends in Europe are able to share playlists, email each other URLs to listen to a song. You can even take it a step further and set the playlist to be collaborative, so that you and your friends can edit the playlist, they can delete the whole thing, do all this stuff that we can’t do.
Also, food — by which I mean real food, like beef and milk and fresh vegetables — is cheaper in the German and Dutch grocery stores I’ve visited than it is in the States. I think this has something to do with the complex and obscure Common Agricultural Policy of the E.U., but the upshot is that — unlike in the States, apparently — you can affordably feed your family something other than KFC and Mr. Pibb.
Food freedom is actually a large, unacknowledged issue in the U.S. The federal government views unpasteurized dairy, for example, with suspicion: it’s illegal to transport raw milk and its products across state lines, and unpasteurized cheeses must be aged 60 days, which rules out nearly all of your soft French cheeses. Many states have already outlawed raw milk and unpasteurized cheeses entirely, and the FDA periodically considers making the restrictions even more draconian. Needless to say, the French don’t put up with these kinds of intrusions on their liberty, and neither should we.
America is also fairly unfree when it comes to farming — especially family farming. Joel Salatin, a sort of farm activist and author of the awesomely-titled Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal, briefly explains here the way thoughtless regulatory policy drives up costs and unnecessarily encumbers small farmers and gives factory farmers a price advantage. Meanwhile Walter Jeffries of Sugar Mountain Farm has jumped through no end of hoops to build a USDA-approved slaughterhouse on his own land — partly because outside slaughter and butchering facilities take forty-seven percent of his gross revenue, but also partly to avoid having to deal with the National Animal Identification System. In Mr. Jeffries’ own words:
The idea is that every single livestock animal in the United States will be identified and tagged. All livestock animal movements will be tracked, logged and reported to the government. The benefit is to the big factory farms who probably do need this type of regulation. They get to do single ID’s for large groups of animals. Small farmers, pet owners and homesteaders will have to tag and track every single animal.
The Netherlands also has a highly regulated agricultural sector. But unlike the U.S. system, the regulation leans toward supporting and encouraging small, family-scale farms; approximately 30% of Dutch farms fall into this category. Nor is this by accident: after World War II the Netherlands embarked on a conscious program to develop and modernize small farms. 80% of Dutch farmers are unionized, which means individual farmers have the same kind of voice in the Netherlands that large agribusinesses have in the U.S.
Also, as I reported a few posts ago, the Dutch have decided, collectively, to build bike paths. Why this should be such a decidedly European act, I don’t know — ALL transportation infrastructure is created in a collectivist, socialist fashion, and there’s nothing implicitly more socialist about about bike paths that there is about interstate highways or the “Post Roads” the Constitution explicitly calls on the federal government to build. But for some reason in the United States if you mention spending tax dollars on real, separate roads for bicycles, people assume you have an extra socialism chromosome.
I think part of the problem is that in the U.S. bicycles are associated with environmentalism and children, two things nobody likes. But here’s the thing — bike paths make people tangibly freer and improve quality of life in measurable ways. Nijmegen, where we’re staying, has a population of 163,000 and a population density of 7,884/sq mi — almost 4 times as dense as Dayton, Ohio, which has a similar population. Yet high-rises are few, and it doesn’t feel cramped. Why does it take so much more space to house Daytonians? Because Dayton, like almost all American cities other than New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, assumes that people will, as a default, drive a car nearly everywhere they go. That means more space has to be devoted to roads and parking… which makes everything further apart… which means that everybody drives a car.
When a society chooses, on the other hand, to provide real bike paths and lanes and bike parking at every public facility, they allow for higher population density without sacrificing quality of life… which in turn makes biking even easier. The practical outcome is an increase in freedom. Kids, for example, are much less free in Dayton than in Nijmegen, because they’re dependent on their parents’ cars to go anywhere. Dutch kids, on the other hand, can ride all around the city, across the river, and far out into the country without making demands on the parental taxi service. The poor are similarly empowered — for the price of a bicycle, you can join the economic and social life of Nijmegen, and because biking is so prevalent, no one looks down on you for showing up on a ten-speed.
This is no minor thing — economic freedom consists of more than just a legal right to buy and sell property and labor; an infrastructure must exist which makes it possible for people to participate in the market. A car-based infrastructure requires a high individual buy-in; public transit requires a high taxpayer buy-in; but a bicycle infrastructure gives everyone, at every level of society, equal access to the market.
A serious bike culture increases personal freedom, empowers the disenfranchised, reduces air pollution (the area around Nijmegen mostly smells like grass and flowers, which is not something one can say of Dayton), and improves health (adult prevalence of being overweight in Holland is around 42%, compared with over 60% in most U.S. states). But this isn’t something that an individual can put into practice by himself, any more than an individual can make his own freeway. Sometimes individual freedom is aided by collective action — and Dutch bike culture is one of those times.
On the other hand, that’s not to say Holland is somehow a paradise in every way that America is not. They do have excellent day care… but that’s because you have to go back to work right away. That’s right — the Dutch hate giving new moms and dads time off just as much as we do. And they have a hybrid (mostly private, sometimes public) health care system — just like us! (Only theirs is heavily regulated and actually works.)
And in other ways, the Western European democracies are much, much lamer than the U.S. Consider freedom of speech. Both culturally and legally, Western Europe is a free speech backwater. For example, in Germany, you can’t get a copy of Mein Kampf. It’s not technically outlawed, but the state of Bavaria, bizarrely enough, owns the copyright, and it refuses to allow the book to be published for fear that it could inspire right-wing extremism — a form of state control as effective as a legal ban.
And in the U.K., the store HMV had to remove World Cup fan T-shirts reading “Anyone But England” from its Scottish branches after someone called the police to report “criminally irresponsible” “incitement to racial hatred.” This is frankly incomprehensible to me as an American. Even if a retailer sold shirts that were actually racist in the States — shirts for golf fans reading, “Anyone but that chink bastard Tiger Woods,” or something — you can’t really imagine anyone calling the police. They’d just call Al Sharpton, and that shit would be over.
And British libel laws are notorious for casting a chilling effect on both free speech and scientific inquiry, not merely in Britain, but abroad as well, since it’s very easy for foreign parties to sue one another in British courts. (They’ve even chilled press reporting on sources of terrorist funding.)
Then there’s the stuff that’s just weird. In Holland, when you move, you have to tell the government where you’re living now. And not in a passive way, like when the I.R.S. gets your address from your employer on your W-2. No, I mean you have to actually register as living in the Village of Whatever. I used to live in Venice Beach in L.A., and there were a shit-ton of hippies in Venice living out of conversion vans and Winnebagos. Hard to imagine those people filling out a postcard to the government.
Or consider this: home schooling is effectively illegal in the Netherlands. Also Germany, and Sweden’s thinking about banning it as well. America’s schools may be sadly deficient in some ways, but at least you can always opt out.
Noted libertarian and grumpy old man P.J. O’Rourke once wrote a pretty thoughtful set of essays comparing “Good Socialism” (Sweden) to “Bad Socialism” (Cuba). Cuba’s problems are, of course, obvious, but when it came time to find the places where Swedish socialism was harming actual Swedes, O’Rourke was reduced to talking about how bland the architecture is and how prevalent alcoholism and suicide are in Sweden. (A skeptic might posit that these latter problems have something to do with it being in the fucking Arctic.)
The truth is that, aside from First Amendment freedoms — which really are a hallmark of American life and a shining example to the rest of the world — Americans are not noticeably freer than the rest of the developed world. We live like sheep just like everybody else.
Weirdly, though, we’re also not richer or happier. Forbes magazine — not, you know, noted for being a bunch of hippies — reported last year that the U.S. does not have the world’s highest per capita GDP (that would be Norway, with $98,000 per capita compared to the U.S.’s $47,000), nor does it crack the top ten in reported levels of happiness, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.
Nations excel at the things they spend money on. Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands have the highest reported happiness because they spend their money on being happy and trying to improve the lot of the whole society. What do we spend our money on? Well, we have the world’s two largest air forces — the Navy’s aircraft alone outnumber the Chinese air force 2-to-1. That does make us pretty badass, but it’s lonely work wearing “the crown upon a troubled brow.”