Two recent versions of the same argument. First, the simplified 800 word version, from Roger Cohen.
To paraphrase Mauriac, I love France, but I don’t want there to be two of them, least of all if one is in the United States. … I think President Obama’s counter-revolution goes in the right direction. … Still, the $3.6 trillion Obama budget made me a little queasy. There is a touch of France in its “étatisme” — the state as all-embracing solution rather than problem — and there’s more than a touch of France in the bash-the-rich righteousness with which the new president cast his plans as “a threat to the status quo in Washington.” … You know possibility when you breathe it. For an immigrant, it lies in the ease of American identity and the boundlessness of American horizons after the narrower confines of European nationhood and the stifling attentions of the European nanny state, which has often made it more attractive not to work than to work. High French unemployment was never much of a mystery. Americans, at least in their imaginations, have always lived at the new frontier; French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries. Churn is the American way. … If America loses sight of these truths, it will cease to be itself.
Second, the lengthier and more sophisticated variant from Clive Crook.
I was hoping that Brooks would press Shields to say what exactly it is about France he objects to, what makes him recoil at the parallel. Where has France gone too far, in the view of an American liberal? … Presumably, liberals approve of the universal health care, the generous and extensive welfare state, the comprehensive worker protections, the stricter regulation, the vastly more-generous subsidies for higher education, the stronger unions, the higher taxes, and especially the higher taxes on the rich. … Perhaps some liberals privately long to make the United States over in the image of France, but the great majority, I imagine, are more interested in taking the things they regard as best in the European economic model—all the things I just listed—and combining those “socially enlightened” policies with the traditional economic virtues of the United States. Take French social policies and welfare-state institutions and add them to the American work ethic, spirit of self-reliance, and appetite for change. Et voila, the best of both worlds. Color me skeptical. Culture shapes institutions and vice versa. Culture—that bundle of traits of self-reliance, self-determination, innovation, and striving for success—underpins the American exception. … In ordinary times, this culture makes it hard for a government to push the United States in a European direction … But now, maybe, the time is ripe. This unusually severe economic crisis has called American capitalism into question, highlighting its weaknesses and making it easier to forget its strengths. Liberalism has a rare opportunity. … But the interaction between culture and institutions works both ways. Change the system and, with time, you will change the culture. How much you will change it is debatable, and so is whether change of that kind would be good, bad, or indifferent for the country’s economic and political prospects. But it would be an error to assume that the policy transformation that some liberals long for—and which Obama, if his budget is any guide, appears to be aiming for—would leave America’s unusual cultural traits unaffected.
… the American exception is alive and well, and that it is more than likely the secret of this country’s awesome success. … I would need to think long and hard before casting it for “transformation.” Repairs here and improvements there, of course, but transformation? It would be a shame to see America revert to the Western European norm. … The fact is, whether his programs work or not, taken together they represent the biggest and fastest expansion of government since the New Deal. Moreover, the tax increases to pay for this expansion, he says, are to fall entirely on high-earning households. So his plan to enlarge government is married to an uncompromising assault on economic inequality. And if all of this is not enough to remind you of Europe, Obama has also expressed strong support for the Employee Free Choice Act, arguing that bigger and stronger unions are a vital part of sharing prosperity more widely. To somebody who watched unions cripple the British economy, until voters elected Margaret Thatcher to sweep them away1, this is the part of Obama’s program that seems most in need of an international reality check. This promised transformation is not a move into unexplored territory, after all. The policies that Obama is proposing have all been tried elsewhere. Ideas that look bold and new in this country are old hat across the Atlantic. And we know something about how well they work.
There is something very, very strange in my eyes about this kind of argument. On the one hand. a notion of a healthy American culture of can-do entrepreneurialism, which has survived for centuries and caused America to prosper. On the other, the claim that the combination of broader-if-not-quite-universal healthcare, a slightly easier time for unions, and a return to the relatively mild form of progressive taxation we saw in the 1990s would very probably lead to the destruction of said robust culture. Something here Does Not Compute.
But even if we ignore the internal contradictions, the claim that America is going to become ‘France’ 2 if we’re not very careful doesn’t really hold up. If this kind of change were likely, then the US would no longer have a France to become like.
This may require some explaining.There is a thriving literature in political economy on the forces driving convergence and divergence in the world economy. Much of this work sought to discover whether or not countries were converging in the 1990s and the early years of this decade on a single Anglo-Saxon model, given international economic pressures and the success of the US. France was a case in point. Francois Mitterand’s efforts to revive and strengthen French social protections when he came to power in the early 1980s led to near economic collapse, and the momentous decision by the French socialists to accept the capitalist straitjacket of liberalized international markets. The succeeding two decades saw the steady erosion of the more social democratic (and socially protective Christian Democratic aspects) of the political economy in France, Germany and other European countries, the withdrawal of the state from ownership of large chunks of the economy and the spread of various more free-market oriented institutions and social practices.
France and other countries faced a profound crisis – a crisis which in some ways was even more profound than that facing the US today. They have faced continuing pressures to ‘reform’ institutions in a more market-liberal direction over the succeeding two decades. And they have indeed changed in some very important ways. But France did not converge onto the US model despite these pressures. If it had, presumably Crook’s and Cohen’s criticisms would be rather different than the ones that they are making Instead, it has reformed along a divergent trajectory to the US, with continued heavy state involvement in the economy but of a different variety than previously.
This reinforces a near-universal finding of the relevant literature in political economy as I read it. While there is some diffusion of policy lessons across states, it tends to have limited consequences. Different countries respond to common shocks in very different ways, because of their existing institutional structures. National economic trajectories are quite robust. Even in major crises, advanced capitalist countries tend to tinker around the edges of their institutional systems rather than opt for wholesale reform, let alone converging on a perceived ‘better national model’ elsewhere.
And this is what is happening in the US. The Obama proposals are not particularly radical departures from existing practice in the US. They are certainly nothing like traditional European social democracy. Even David Brooks effectively acknowledges this, when he says that they are potentially problematic in combination rather than individually. They aren’t going to set the US on a different national trajectory, let alone make it ‘French’ or ‘European.’ Some of us might like to see this happen, but it isn’t going to, even given the ideological trauma that the US is undergoing. And arguing that American individualism is likely to wilt if exposed to nasty foreign influences smacks more of a kind of capitalist-road José Bové-ism than any serious kind of intellectual analysis.
1 I leave this claim to Harry to respond to if he wants to.
2I note in passing that the claim is that America will become ‘France,’ not that America will become France. The ‘France’ of Cohen and Crook’s articles is less a country than a numinous state of being, consisting primarily of state-provided everything, laziness (both enjoyable and otherwise) and very good cheese. It has no actual inhabitants (excepting, perhaps, Peter Beagle’s imaginary Mr. Moscowitz who at the last became so French that France itself was no longer good enough for him).