LITTLE DISPUTE. You know, whenever you read someone saying, “There is little dispute among economists that [blah blah blah],” it’s probably a safe assumption that “blah blah blah” actually engenders huge amounts of dispute. Economists dispute everything, and anything they’re actually of one mind on tends to be too banal to write about. Take Kevin Hasset’s assertion that “[t]here is little dispute among economists that the U.S.’s big advantage is its relatively small government.” There’s actually plenty of dispute about that. Indeed, most economists — though not all — tend to think France’s economic failings have a lot to do with their labor market policies, which prize security over dynamism and often disincentivize work. On the other hand, the Scandinavian countries have far larger governments than the US and have also enjoyed higher economic growth than we have. The difference is that they use their public sector to ensure security and retraining without stifling dynamism or economic freedom. For more on how, at least, Denmark did this, see Jon Cohn’s article from a few months back. More generally, what government does and how it does it matters much more than how big it is.
Me: We can have the argument about the best form of government for the other 364 days a year. What I find interesting about the liberal defense of European welfare states (They really work! No Really!) is how they leave culture out of the equation almost entirely. Conservatives, particularly free market types of the Kempian variety, have a similar myopia.
Indeed, I think this is a far more pressing point than most people want to bring up — in part because conservatives are invested in the Bush freedom agenda and in part because they don’t want liberals to call them racist. Meanwhile liberals are uncomfortable discussing the reality and constraints of culture for a host of reasons, from multiculturalism to vestigial hangups about seeing the world through prisms of class.
Maybe, just maybe, France and Denmark can handle the systems they have because they have long traditions of sucking-up to the state and throne? Marty Lipset wrote stacks of books on how Canadians and Americans have different forms of government because the Royalist, throne-kissing, swine left America for Canada during the Revolutionary War and that’s why they don’t mind big government, switched to the metric system when ordered and will wait on line like good little subjects. Liberals constantly invoke Sweden as a governmental model without paying much heed to the fact that Sweden’s government succeeds as much as it does because it governs Swedes. And maybe, just maybe, the reason America doesn’t have a sprawling European welfare state is that America isn’t Europe. And, unlike some of our liberal friends, Americans don’t want to be Europeans. Indeed, that’s why so many Europeans move to America, so they can be Americans.
If government systems are the only variable, or even the most important and decisive one, then how come it’s so damn hard bringing third world countries into the first world? There are plenty of African and Latin American welfare states that are indistinguishable on paper from their European cousins and yet we don’t see Swedens and Denmarks all over the place. And of course no one can deny the salience of this point when it comes to poor benighted Iraq. What a happier place the world would be if fixing Iraq merely meant installing the most fashionable system from Europe these days, whatever that is.