Saturday, May 08, 2010

Bergner: American Exceptionalism Means Saying No to a European-Style Welfare State

We break our long blogging silence, having been bored with current events, to call our now-listless gentle readers' attention to Jeffrey Bergner's extensive and important article in the Weekly Standard discussing American exceptionalism and the lust for a European-style welfare state.

The article is long and challenging for those who think of USA Today as serious journalism but should be digestible for our gentle readers. In sum, Bergner argues that Europe and our Republic historically have different views of government because we have different experiences, this Republic's having been formed largely to reject Europe's history of governance with something that could overcome Europe's failures.

As usual, we offer a few quotations in hopes of inducing a full reading:

Americans achieved a distinctive political system and saw European politics as more to be pitied than envied. So deep was this strain that it would not occur to any serious American for a full century afterward to borrow from Europe’s politics. . . .

Madison argued, in effect, that the equality of Americans lay essentially in their equal freedom, not in their social characteristics. In this way, the American innovations of union, liberty, and diversity would all work to reinforce one another in a new political system embodied in a government with limited powers. . . .

Tocqueville was of course well aware that aristocracy and social stratification continued to exist in Europe in the early 19th century. But he argued that the intellectual and social battle for the future had already been won and that the ideal of equality was the victor. In this, as always, he was prescient. He argued that Europeans were accustomed to being controlled by their governments and had been for centuries. As the ideal of equality drove out monarchies and aristocracies, one type of centralized control was substituted for another. Monarchies and principalities gave way to the centrally administered state. . . .

Europe is further down the course of self-created entitlements than the United States (though we have gained ground in the last 18 months). As ever new entitlements are provided, ever more taxes are levied; ever more taxes diminish the productivity and creativity of the people; the goals and ends of the populace become ever narrower, until finally even rearing a replacement generation is too great a burden, threatening people’s comfort; and ever more money is borrowed from ever fewer lenders. This is unsustainable, and the fact that it has not yet come to its unhappy conclusion is no reason to emulate it. European politics is a slow engine of self-destruction. The question is not whether, but when, it will collapse. And when it does, the result is likely to be a more rigid and meaner despotism than the soft despotism of today. . . .

The only corrective to a too great love of equality is a tempering dose of liberty, that is, a degree of prudence about what the central government should and should not do. The only corrective to bankruptcy short of centrally mandated rationing is restraint of the role of government. In all of this, America still seems a better model for Europe than vice versa. . . .

Europe has solved none of the fundamental political concerns that have animated American politics since the founding: union; limited government as the expression of a balance between equality and liberty; and diversity. It would be folly for the United States to emulate Europe’s political model. If, as seems likely, no serious U.S. statesman would trade America’s problems for Europe’s, why then emulate its politics?
Well, that should be enough. But we can't resist a little more:

The political left in the United States seizes on one thread out of the complex American political fabric—equality—and emphasizes it to the exclusion of all else. The left displays scant concern about using the federal government to force equality of condition; it displays even less concern for prudence in what it asks the government to do; and of late it displays virtually no concern at all for fiscal responsibility and the welfare of future generations. It chafes under constitutional and procedural restrictions on its ability to advance its agenda. And it seeks to stifle the free expression of religious and dissenting views in the public square.

The American left has turned its back on the incomparably rich and sophisticated political tradition that has been bequeathed to us. The narrative of the left has this great tactical virtue: It is simple, even simple-minded, in its conception, lacking the slightest nuance. Perhaps this accounts for the left’s singularly empty rhetoric; beneath its ad hominem attacks, faux emoting, and tactical calculation, its intellectual architecture could not support a feather.

And finally:

American exceptionalism is not, as the left caricatures it, some preemptive right to run the world. To the contrary, it is the practice of a politics that addresses fundamental problems in a specific way, namely, a way consistent with union, with a balance between liberty and equality expressed through limited government, and with a decent respect for diversity. If there is another nation that approaches the fundamental choices of politics in this rich way—as opposed to simple, majoritarian egalitarianism—I am unaware of it. President Obama expressed his true contempt for American exceptionalism when he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism—just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” A more shallow, cynical misunderstanding of American exceptionalism is hard to imagine.

Indeed. Some ideas have been tried enough not to be tried again.

3 comments:

timjoywing said...

"Wefare" state ... or did you mean Welfare?

You may have coined a new phrase.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

It was a typo, now corrected, but maybe we-fare state gets to the heart of the matter.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I wish I could write like that. If only politics were about accurate and effective ideas and not control.