Clive Crook Changes His Mind

by Henry Farrell on January 11, 2012

“This column”: by Clive Crook today:

bq. Democrats therefore find themselves having to deny the obvious. Obama wants to make the country more like Europe? Ridiculous. A straw man. But it isn’t ridiculous. What’s ridiculous is the idea that Republicans take for granted and squirming Democrats tacitly endorse — that making the U.S. more like Europe would be a disaster. … The biggest step the U.S. needed to take in Europe’s direction, and the longest overdue, was health-care reform. The Affordable Care Act is a start. … Obviously, political cultures differ in deep ways, so there will never be One True Capitalism, right for everybody. … Still, Europe’s biggest economies all reflect a social- democratic tradition that puts more emphasis on collective provision and the guiding hand of government than seems natural in the U.S. The American political tradition stresses the rights and responsibilities of individuals; it exalts private enterprise and almost celebrates risk. These are choices that countries should be free to make.

bq. … Europe’s politicians looked at the U.S. and decided they needed, among other things, more American incentives and more American creative destruction. … They said so explicitly: Unlike their U.S. counterparts, they weren’t embarrassed to point to the other model. … On the other hand, Europe can teach the U.S. a thing or two about social insurance — and not just in health care, the most egregious failure of the American economic model. Help for the unemployed has traditionally been ungenerous in the U.S. … Republicans might also ask whether America is living up to the merit-society ideal. … In America, land of opportunity, if you are born poor, your chances of staying poor are higher than in Europe. The trade-off between economic vitality and economic security cannot be eliminated. But its terms can be improved in the U.S. and Europe, if each pays closer attention to the other.

presents a “striking contrast with this one”: from three years ago.

bq. 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 … 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.

NB that I am noting, not criticizing, this apparent change of heart. People have different attitudes to returning prodigals. Except in the case of continued rank hypocrisy, I’m by and large in favor of killing the fatted calf (or at the least, keeping it nicely plump in the hopeful anticipation that the change will stick).