The Corner

Europeanization or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Old World

On Slate, Michael Lind writes that we should stop using “Europeanizing” as a scary word, because America has long benefitted from European ideas:

It’s an election year, so once again the American right is warning the citizenry against the Europhile conspiracy. Progressives, you see, are unpatriotic Europe-lovers, a fifth column in our midst, who want to destroy American liberty by remodeling America in the image of the tyrannical, collectivist Old World.

Lind goes on to explain that many of America’s institutions originally came from Europe or Britain — and he cleverly conflates the two as if they were one and the same; note that two of the four examples he gives are primarily British, not European — and that therefore,

Our approach as a nation to foreign examples — in Europe, or Asia, or elsewhere — should be as pragmatic as the approach attributed to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Told that Gen. Grant was an alcoholic, Lincoln is supposed to have said, “Find out what he drinks and give it to my other generals.” If foreign countries do things better than we do — as today’s Europeans do social mobility, family leave and affordable healthcare better than today’s United States — then like the great Americans of the past we should not hesitate to copy the foreigners.

There are numerous problems with this analogy. Firstly, America was pretty much a blank slate at the beginning and blank slates need filling. Of course the new country was going to import institutions and ideas from Britain and Europe — it “imported” a language, too. But there is a marked difference between establishing industrial capitalism and a military — basic functions of any successful state — and adopting sclerotic big-government policies that have demonstrably failed. The examples of previously-adopted European ideas that Lind provides are models of excellence that the United States understandably wished to emulate, not systems that have pushed the Europeans to the brink of crisis. One might say that whatever Europe is drinking, it’s certainly not the same as was General Grant.#more#

Secondly, there is no reason why America needs to copy all of Britain or Europe’s institutions simply because it has copied some. Unfortunately, this line of thinking is well-trodden. We hear its cousin frequently from the president; that if one acknowledges that limited government is necessary to enforce contracts, provide defense and basic infrastructure, and deliver various central frameworks, then all that those in favor of its enlargement would wish upon us must be also agreeable. There are many European ideas at which Lind would presumably recoil: established churches and speech restrictions, for example. Are we to presume that America should adopt these, too, because it wanted an efficient military at its founding — or does the rule only apply to the social-welfare state?

Thirdly, including anti-slavery on a list of foreign innovations is a little much. The anti-slavery movement in American life predated the constitution but took a while to come to fruition. That was a terrible thing for those kept in bondage, and for those who believe in the words of the Declaration. But unlike Britain, which Lind correctly praises for undertaking abolition at home and abroad long before the American civil war, America faced the dual problems of a huge number of existing slaves and the lack of a central authority that could issue unilateral decrees and back them up with unchecked naval might. It wasn’t as if the Americans looked with fresh eyes at British success and contrived to copy the example. One can argue over whether emancipation would have been achieved earlier had America remained a series of colonies under British rule, but that is a counter-factual, the proposition of which would dissolve Lind’s column entirely.

Ultimately, Lind is correct in identifying that there were genuine debates about the direction of the country between those who wished to import more of the Old World into the New and those who wished a clean break. He is also right in contending that many of America’s heroes were among the former group. Hamilton, as George Will noted, has won the American reality even if he has not won the American imagination. But it is folly to imply that America would not be substantively different if it had fully ignored the “reactionary Jeffersonians and Jacksonians” who “warned that adopting superior British or European institutions . . . would lead to the end of republican liberty in America.” They are part of what made America America, and deserve much of the credit for its incredible success. We should not expect to be able to graft foreign institutions onto the American model without consequence. As always, what good may be done will always be countered by some bad. Eventually, there will come a point at which American republican liberty and the old systems that it was established to escape become mutually exclusive. Exactly where that point is — and whether we have already reached it — is up for debate. But its existence is not. America is no longer a blank slate: We should remember that.


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