Civil Liberties

Unindividualistic Americans Already Live in a "European-Style Social Democracy"


Many moons ago, a Danish-born professor stirred up a bit of a fuss in one of my college political science classes when he off-handedly snorted at American claims to rugged individualism. Europeans are more individualistic, he told us. If they don't like laws, they don't obey them; Americans just grumble and do what they're told. I thought of grumpy old Prof. Rasmussen's dismissal of Americans' self-reliant pretenses as I read American Enterprise Institute jefe Arthur C. Brooks's column in the Wall Street Journal, "America Already Is Europe: In spending, debt and progressivity of taxes, the U.S. is as much a social-welfare state as Spain."

Brooks's approach is a little different than that of my old poli sci professor; he makes dollars-and-cents comparisons:

In 1938—the year my organization, the American Enterprise Institute, was founded—total government spending at all levels was about 15% of GDP. By 2010 it was 36%. The political right can crow all it wants about how America is a "conservative country," unlike, say, Spain—a country governed by the Spanish Socialist Workers Party for most of the past 30 years. But at 36%, U.S. government spending relative to GDP is very close to Spain's. And our debt-to-GDP ratio is 103%; Spain's is 68%.

Actually, according to the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom, in the United States, "[g]overnment expenditures have grown to 42.2 percent of GDP," while in Spain, "[g]overnment spending has increased to a level equivalent to 45.8 percent of GDP."

Brooks's further point is that we're just a little later arriving at the the same destination as those pinko European countries, but that the American left and the bipartisan forces of cronyism have steadfastly pushed us in that direction. He also suggests that, even if Americans are as pro-free enterprise and fond of individual endeavor as they think they are, their general distaste for politics has led them to ignore the changes around them.

[W]hile a majority of Americans are neither leftists nor corporate cronies, they aren't paying much attention to the political system. We often hear that more than 85% of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing. But, according to the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, only 25% of American adults can correctly name both of their U.S. senators, and 51% can name neither. If I don't know who my senator is, I am unlikely to know much about his bridge to nowhere.

But the crusty Dane of Clark University insisted that Europeans were more individualistic than Americans, which suggests that my countrymen aren't just being bypassed — they might actually be less Davy Crockett-ish than they like to think (and so, probably, was Crockett). And there's evidence to just that effect.

I've written before that "globally speaking, American taxpayers are pushovers," and it's true that Americans, with our 83.1 percent tax compliance rate, give the IRS such an easy time of it that the Belgians (70.15 percent) and Italians (62.49 percent) would just consider our obedience positively unsporting. Comparing tax rates becomes a little problematic when one set of taxpayers just complains and another treats the whole matter as a game of "catch me if you can." (And Reason's own Veronique de Rugy has already written that "the U.S. tax code is more progressive and European than you think.")

I mean, really … Where's that old American individualism when research by professional peerer-into-the darkness Friedrich Schneider consistently finds the country to have the smallest shadow economy in the world relative to the size of its official GDP. Even Japan (8.9 percent) and Switzerland (8.3 percent) beat out the U.S.A (8.0 percent) in terms of people hiding their economic activities from tax collectors and regulators.

And Europeans aren't exactly bowing down to those draconian gun controls when 82 million Germans own 20 million unregistered guns (far more than the legal count), and neighboring France takes that as a spur to its competitive spirit.

Yes, it's true that nobody beats us when it comes to at least trying grass (42.4 percent of us have toked up) and cocaine (16.2 percent — nobody else is even close), according to World Health Organization data. Intoxicant-specific scofflawry seems a particular American specialty. But I think the point is clear; we're not some separate breed of go-it-aloners standing apart from the herd; we're pretty damned sheep-like ourselves, and those Europeans are more coyote-ish than we ever thought.

I guess the big question, now that my old professor has been proven largely right, is whether we'll start picking up some of the old continent's individualistic cussedness and start more enthusiastically resisting the "European-style social democracy" Mr. Brooks points out we're already inhabiting.