Who we are

West Europeans were always far more elite-driven and ruler-knows-best than we in the US could  tolerate.  But for longer than a generation now, Europeans and Americans have been diverging in a more fundamental way.

Around 1970, the West European countries launched an experiment in value-free social democracy, in which the citizen, like a child, was presumed to lack moral agency and thus required the paternal protection of the state.  Coincidentally or not, the peoples of Europe at the same time began to turn away from their customary way of life.

Americans, meanwhile, became more like ourselves.  Under the impulse of Ronald Reagan’s transformative administration, we returned to the founding principles of Jeffersonian democracy.  In practice, this meant lower taxes, a less intrusive government, and a wider sphere of action for the individual citizen.

I have never considered morality a competitive sport.  I love the American way of life, but have no wish to proselytize.  If the French and the Germans don’t mind having their lives minutely regulated, if they bow to labor but sneer at business, if they have lost the urge to marry and reproduce – well, that’s their look-out.  These are democracies.  Presumably, the will of the people has been enforced.

Yet this is not the way of the world.  Rivalry and jealousy are endemic between siblings – which is what the peoples on both sides of the Atlantic are.  During the Bush administration, Europeans sought to universalize their ideals:  to the degree that we failed to fall in line, we became an object of condemnation and righteous anger.

President Obama appears inclined to agree.  His program follows the European model, and would place the infantilized citizen in a comfy playpen hemmed in by prohibitions and regulations.  The president believes we must become other than we are.  A string of unhappy events, culminating in the financial collapse, convince him that the American future is Sweden.

Of course, for the electorate to be persuaded this can’t be said out loud.  It is therefore refreshing to have the egregious Paul Krugman, in this typically confused column, do just that.

Krugman is a hack who plays an economist for the NYT.  He advocates European-style social democracy – the subject at hand is the legislative monster called “health care reform” – and he labors to prove that criticism based on the economic burden of the nanny state is just crazy talk.  He asks, rhetorically (or so one hopes), “For those Americans who have visited Paris:  did it look poor and backward?”

In fact, when last I visited Paris in 2007, the place looked visibly shabbier than it had during the Nineties.  But that’s no kind of argument, any more than Krugman’s is.

Others have responded to Krugman’s strange economic reasoning better than I can (try this and this).  Suffice it to say that, from that moment of divergence in the Seventies, we have grown proportionately wealthier than the Europeans.  We are also significantly more productive:  the average Brit in the UK generates about two-thirds as much wealth as the average British-American.

However, the choice before us isn’t only, or even primarily, about economics.  It’s about how we – as individuals, as a people – wish to conduct our lives.  It’s about who we are.

I don’t presume to know why President Obama was elected, or what mandate he brought to office.  But I hold the following suspicion.  The vast majority of voters quite firmly maintain that their way of life has been successful – for them as individuals but also for their communities and for the nation.

We are wealthier than we were in the dreary days of President Carter, and – so far – in no worse economic trouble.  We got out of that fix by turning to our foundational ideals, rather than by chucking the problem at a government which has borrowed and spent like a drunken sailor.  We want the same medicine now.

The American people, I strongly suspect, want the president to lead us to who we are, not to some alternate way of life inside his head.

I suspect, finally, that the president’s insistence in pursuing the European model has led to his precipitous loss of popularity.  In this country, the people rule – and he has, maybe unwittingly, collided against a powerful faith which represents the will of the people.

In this suspicion, I am not alone.  A number of analyses on President Obama’s first anniversary read like obituaries, and most (see here and here) sounded the same theme.  Let me conclude with Charles Krauthammer’s, which is probably closest to my own opinion:

To his credit, Obama didn’t just come to Washington to be someone. Like Reagan, he came to Washington to do something — to introduce a powerful social democratic stream into America’s deeply and historically individualist polity.

Perhaps Obama thought he’d been sent to the White House to do just that. If so, he vastly over-read his mandate. His own electoral success — twinned with handy victories and large majorities in both houses of Congress — was a referendum on his predecessor’s governance and the post-Lehman financial collapse. It was not an endorsement of European-style social democracy.

Hence the resistance. Hence the fall. The system may not always work, but it does take its revenge.

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