I’ve spent the last few weeks tootling round various parts of Britain and Europe, and, as always, it takes me a couple of days to acclimatize to local driving norms. I quickly appreciate being on a country lane and able to see the country, as opposed to admiring rural America’s unending procession of bend signs, pedestrian-approaching signs, stop signs, stop-sign-ahead signs, stop-sign-ahead-signs-ahead signs, pedestrian-approaching-a-stop-sign signs, designated-scenic-view-ahead signs, parking-restrictions-at-the-designated-scenic-view signs, etc. It takes me a little longer to get used to the idea that I’m free to pass other cars pretty much whenever I want to, as opposed to settling in behind Granny for the rest of the day as the unbroken yellow lines stretch lazily down broad, straight, empty rural blacktop, across the horizon and into infinity. Want to pass on a blind bend in beautiful County Down or the Dordogne? Hey, it’s your call. Your judgment. Fancy that.
Italian tanks may have five gears for reverse and only one for forward, but in a Fiat the size of your cupholder it’s a different story. The French may plant trees on the Champs-élysées because the Germans like to march in the shade, but they’ll still pass you at 120 on the Grande Corniche. When you’ve done your last surrender-monkey crack, that cloud in your windshield is a dinged deux chevaux leaving your fully loaded SUV for dust. Continentals would never for a moment tolerate the restrictive driving conditions of the United States, and they don’t understand why Americans do. Mon dieu, is not America the land of the car chase?
Gitcha motor running
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure . . .
Actually, America is the land of the car-chase movie. Off-screen, it’s a more sedate affair. Gitcha motor running, head out on the highway, shift down to third gear as there’s a stop-sign-ahead sign ahead. At dinner, I listened to a Frenchman and an Italian while away the entrée chortling at how docile and compliant Americans are. Americans would counter that they’re the only country with a Second Amendment. But Continentals don’t see a gun rack in your pickup as any consolation for not being able to pass for the next 28 miles.
Most of all they were amused by the constant refrain from the American Right that if the nation doesn’t change course it will end up as mired in statism as Europe. “Americans love Big Government as much as Europeans,” one chap told me. “The only difference is that Americans refuse to admit it.” He attributed this to our national myth-making — “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Maybe they should change it to “at least I know it’s free.” In 1979, 7 percent of Americans received means-tested government benefits; by 2009, it was over 30 percent. In 2000, 17 million Americans were on food stamps; today, it’s 46 million. In the last three years, 2.6 million Americans have signed on with new employers, but 3.1 million have signed on for disability checks. In little more than a generation, dependency has metastasized in America. Workplace death and accident rates have fallen by 40 percent since the Sixties, but apparently the safer the American work environment gets the more people are disabled by it.
To be disabled in the government sense it is not necessary to be disabled in any meaningful sense. To be on food stamps it is not necessary to be in need of food: In Massachusetts, as Governor Patrick has recently clarified, it’s fine to use them to buy porn and get tattoos. On the latter point, should you change your mind, the website The Billfold interviewed a well-remunerated lawyer who’s saving four grand by getting her faded Celtic knot removed by a federally funded free clinic in Oregon under a program intended to help ex–gang members rid themselves of identifying tats.
How many more millions will be on food stamps and disability by the end of the decade? According to the Heritage Foundation, in the United States government spending accounts for 42 percent of GDP, in Canada 44 percent. Those two points are apparently the difference between a sturdy republic of limited government and self-reliant citizens and a notorious semi-French socialist basket case of effete wimps. Oh, wait: New Zealand’s about the same as America.
In my book America Alone, there’s a passage on cheese, prompted by a casual remark from a Gallic bon vivant who argued that, if federalism merely means a different town clerk every five miles, what’s the point? The French, he said, practice cultural federalism — a different cheese every five miles — unlike Washington’s hideous National Uniform Cheese Regime, which, as with the rest of USDA’s regulatory enforcement, is doing a grand job of removing all taste from American food. I could see what he was getting at. Americans, so zealous in defense of their liberties when it comes to guns, are cheese-surrendering eating-monkeys when it comes to dairy products. On the roads, on the cheese board, in health care, in banking privacy, and in a zillion other areas of life, many Europeans now have more freedom than Americans.
For the record, I’m consistent in these matters — I want it all: assault weapons and unpasteurized Camembert, guns and butter. Certainly, cheese makes a poor attitudinal rallying cry: “I’m proud to be a Frenchman, where at least I know my Brie!” But, in the pit of national decline, the cheese will still be there. To invest your national identity in ideas about liberty and government is far more perilous, especially as the gap between those ideas and the daily lives of increasing numbers of Americans grows ever wider.