Rome — If Americans think fuel and food prices are high, they should try Europe, where both can be nearly double those in the United States, while salaries are often lower.
Italy, like most of the now-broke southern-European countries, is desperate to privatize bloated public-owned utilities. Politicians are trying to curb pensions and encourage the private sector to hire workers and buy equipment, as a way of attracting wary northern Europeans, acting in loco parentis, to lend such perpetual adolescents more bailout money.
In theory, Italians accept that they are going to have to be a lot more like the Germans, and less like the Irish, Portuguese, and Spaniards. In reality, they may end up like the Greeks, who are still striking and occasionally rioting because too few foreigners wish to continue subsidizing their socialist paradise. Red graffiti on Italian streets still speak of socialist solidarity, while Italian politicians talk capitalism to foreign lenders.
The European Union, like the 19th-century Congress of Vienna, can point to one achievement: a general absence of war in Western Europe for more than 60 years. Otherwise, almost all the socialist promises of an equality of result are imploding before Europeans’ eyes.
The higher taxes go, the more people cheat on them, and the less revenue comes in. There are sometimes two prices in Italy (and elsewhere in Europe) — the official price that the unwary pay, which includes a high value-added tax, and the negotiated, under-the-table, tax-free price that the haggling shopper obtains.
Europe is essentially defenseless, as governments further trim defense budgets to keep their shrinking spread-the-wealth entitlements alive. The French and British — the continent’s two premier military powers — have been trying for nearly three months to defeat Moammar Qaddafi’s ragtag nation of less than 7 million, itself rent by civil war. The descendants of Wellington and Napoleon so far seem no match for Qaddafi and the Taliban. Both nations will soon be leaving Afghanistan in frustration.
Subsidized wind and solar power have not led to much of an increase in European supplies of electricity, but have helped make power bills soar. Highly taxed gas runs about $10 a gallon, ensuring tiny cars and dependence on mass transit. Central planners love the resulting state-subsidized, high-density European apartment living, without garages, back yards, or third bedrooms. Yet the Japanese tsunami and accompanying nuclear contamination have reminded European governments that their similarly fragile models of highly urbanized, highly concentrated living make them equally vulnerable to such disasters.
Popular culture may praise the use of the subway and train, but about every minute or two, some government grandee in a motorized entourage rushes through the streets as an escort of horn-blaring police forces traffic off to the side. A European technocratic class in limousines that runs government bureaus and international organizations — the class that includes the disgraced former International Monetary Fund chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn — live like 18th-century aristocrats at Versailles as they mouth socialist platitudes.
Throughout Western Europe, a subordinate class of unassimilated North African, sub-Saharan African, and Pakistani immigrants hawk wares and do menial labor — and are increasingly despised by Europeans as times get rougher. A growing proportion of the working class is getting fed up that the welfare state means sky-high fuel and food costs, small and expensive apartments, and limited disposable income for the masses — but lots of aristocratic perks for the technocrats who oversee the redistributive mess. The notion of a large and esteemed class of self-made, independent-thinking business people and empowered upper-middle-class entrepreneurs is a concept that seems foreign, if not downright subversive.
An acknowledged despair now seems to permeate Western Europe. A glorious past is associated with tourist dollars, not appreciation of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Majestic churches are more moneymaking museums and tourist stops than honored hallmarks of past culture and current faith. Christendom often helped to preserve humanity through horrific crises, but you would never learn that from the average cynical European, who appears either indifferent to or apologetic about both his religion and the hallowed European origins of Western civilization, responsible for much of what is good in the world today.
All this European turmoil raises a paradox. If dispirited Europeans are conceding that something is terribly wrong with their half-century-long experiment with socialism, unassimilated immigrants, cultural apologies, defense cuts, and post-nationalism, why in the world is the Obama administration intent on adopting what Europeans are rejecting?
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.