The Obama administration is looking to pass mandatory paid-leave laws and is issuing an executive order mandating paid leave for employees of federal contractors. The argument is a familiar one: “We’re the only advanced nation that doesn’t guarantee paid leave,” a White House communique says.
Paid-leave laws are undesirable for a number of reasons: The federal government is not a very good bank or insurance company or venture-capital firm, and it isn’t going to be a very good HR department either; and, contrary to the insistence of Senator Sanders et al., one of the problems with the American economy at the moment is that Americans are doing too little rather than too much work.
But ignore those for the moment and consider what often is presented as the dispositive argument in these cases: The United States, alone among advanced nations, fails to maintain policy x, where x represents any item from the progressive wish list, from so-called universal health insurance to censorship of unpopular political views to the abolition of capital punishment to, in this case, mandatory paid leave. “The United States, alone among advanced nations, clings to these atavistic ways,” the argument goes, “and must join the rest of the civilized world in x.”
For the Left, “diversity” is about how you like your chicken cooked—Kentucky fried, Kolhapuri, doro wot—the “gorgeous mosaic” of multiculturalism being celebrated in the trivial under the expectation that the world’s people will live under a standard of exacting conformity where it matters.
One of the reasons that the United States often is alone in the world is that there isn’t another country like it. In terms of population size and diversity, the United States is more like India or Brazil than any Western European country. If you are looking for an advanced Western country with economic standing similar to that of the United States, the nearest you’ll come is Germany, a very different sort of country: one-fourth the population, partitioned within recent memory, governed by genocidal dictatorship immediately prior to that, etc.
As regular readers of these pages will know, I have a great deal of admiration for the Swiss model of governance and find much to like in European, and particularly Scandinavian, practices, which apparently confuses and vexes among others David Roberts of Vox, one of those Salon-level writers who likes to go on about American “feudalism,” who recently demanded of me: “Are you endorsing Swiss social and economic policies?” Well, some of them, sure. But the policy transplant is a tricky operation; Switzerland is full of Swiss people, and the United States is not.
The Left, full as it is of being who have for years received their news from Jon Stewart, believes the Right to be full of cartoonish Europe-haters who cannot believe that there is no NASCAR event in Florence. (They cannot believe that John O’Sullivan exists.) But if you flip over to, say, the Heritage Foundation’s annual ranking of countries on the metric of economic freedom—not only freedom from excessive taxation and regulation but freedom from corruption and political management—you see a lot of those wicked welfare states high up on the rankings: New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, and Denmark are all more highly rated than is the United States.
Conservatives sometimes turn the “no other country in the world” argument around: The government of no other economically advanced country presumes worldwide tax jurisdiction, as the United States government does, and no advanced country has a corporate tax as high as in the United States. If we are to go around the world cherry-picking policies from happy countries, we might pass over French paid-leave laws in favor of the Swiss capital-gains tax (generally 0.00 percent) or the Swiss national minimum wage (there isn’t one), or Finland’s very liberal (in the good sense of that word) education system, or Sweden’s free-trade regime and its financial-regulatory system. We’d have to make radical improvements on our federal balance sheet to get our public debt down to Norwegian levels. Our friends on the Left note that Germany has stronger labor unions than we do; we might also note that they have better unions, that IG Metall is a far less destructive and more collaborative organization than is the UAW. As our progressive friends celebrate Australia’s relatively high minimum wage, we might nod along and note that it excludes workers 21 years of age and younger, which is not unlike Charles Krauthammer’s proposal for a two-tiered minimum wage.
Where conservatives differ radically from progressives is in understanding that polities are not plastic, that culture and institutions and history and people matter, and that as attractive as we might find this or that aspect of another country’s governance, it takes the mind of a child to believe that Swiss or Singaporean policies will product Swiss or Singaporean results in New Jersey or Mississippi.
When confronted with a policy maintained by the United States alone, the progressive finds it very difficult to imagine that there might be a good reason for that, or that this might be desirable. The United States is practically alone in the world in its absolute commitment to freedom of speech, for example, something in which old-fashioned liberals once took pride but modern progressives detest and seek to change, pronouncing themselves scandalized by a Supreme Court decision declaring that a group of American citizens is entitled to show a film critical of Hillary Rodham Clinton without government permission and that the government may not ban the showing of films or the circulation of books and other media. G. K. Chesterton’s advice—economically summarized by John Kennedy as “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up”—is almost always relevant. It is, for example, why we still have a Bill of Rights, one of the greatest barriers in the history of political immuring, rather than conducting periodic referenda on individual liberties.
There is much for us to learn from our friends abroad. There is also an excellent reason why there are more people of Swedish origin living on this side of the Atlantic than in Sweden. “No other country . . . .” In the case of the United States, that’s often been an excellent thing.