Europe's Selective Liberalism

In Europe, social tolerance has tight limits.


Earlier this month, the French General Assembly voted to make France the ninth European nation to recognize same-sex marriages. Many Americans will take this, along with the more tolerant treatment of drugs and prostitution, as further evidence of Europe's social liberalism. But European liberalism has its limits. The continent's tolerance is highly selective, and it often excludes particular demographics, unpopular or distasteful opinions, and certain preferences in education.

Since April 2011, for example, France has banned clothing that covers the face, restraining the rights of the women who want to wear either a niqab or a burqa. Belgium has a similar law on the books. These laws were largely motivated by a growing Muslim population, a demographic change that has fueled the growth of movements to limit immigration from predominantly Islamic countries.

In a 2009 referendum Swiss voters approved a constitutional ban on new minarets being built. The ban was supported by just over 57 percent of voters. Elsewhere in Europe, Muslims are viewed with suspicion. A poll from last January shows that 74 percent of French citizens believe that "Islam is incompatible with French society," while in the U.K. less than 25 percent of people believe that Islam is compatible with British society. In Hungary, a discriminatory 2011 law has made it harder for a congregation to register as a religious organization: Of the 362 religious organizations previously recognized, only 14 still have the same standing. The others are no longer eligible for state funding and—more troubling from a libertarian point of view—their schools are no longer officially accredited. Not just Muslims but Methodists, Pentecostalists, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus have been affected by the change. The law was struck down by Hungary's Constitutional Court but was later integrated into a controversial amendment to the constitution.

In the continent where the Holocaust took place it is perhaps not surprising that there are infringements of free speech for those who deny, trivialize, or glorify Hitler's genocide against the Jews. Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Poland, among other nations, have laws restricting speech that denies, trivializes, or glorifies the Holocaust, and in some instances other atrocities, such as those committed by the Soviet Union in Lithuania and Poland. But as offensive and historically illiterate as such speech is, it is hardly tolerant to restrict it.

Germany, one of the countries where Holocaust denial is illegal, also limits the freedom of parents to teach their children as they see fit. Homeschooling is illegal in Germany, prompting one family, the Romeikes, to flee to Tennessee seeking asylum. Germany isn't alone: Homeschooling is outlawed or severely restricted in several Eastern European and Balkan countries.

Perhaps the most recent and noticeable attack on free speech in Europe has been in the U.K. After a phone hacking scandal hit some British newspapers, the Leveson Inquiry was established to examine journalistic ethics in the U.K. and to make recommendations. Thankfully, the British government will not be implementing the body's suggestions that a new independent press regulator be introduced and underpinned by statute. Yet all three major British political parties supported an alternative plan for a press regulator last month that would introduce a code of "standards" and a new regulatory body. Whatever the outcome of the Leveson Inquiry, the press can look forward to a more restricted future, all thanks to hysteria generated by outrage over practices that were already illegal under British law.

Meanwhile, British citizens can get in trouble for saying the wrong thing on social media. Last year an unpleasant university student was sentenced to 56 days in jail for a racist tweet directed at a soccer player. Another student was spared a jail sentence for a similar offense after pleading guilty.

Even where European countries are socially liberal, public opinion isn't as uniform as American stereotypes suggest. The French legalization of same-sex marriage was met with violent protests in Paris, and before the vote the hashtag #IlFautTuerLesHomosexuels ("Homosexuals Must Be Killed") was trending on Twitter in France.

So yes, there are many ways that Europe is freer than the U.S. The Portuguese drug policy would be a vast improvement over America's, and we could learn a lot from the Dutch laws on prostitution too. But when it comes to free speech and school choice—and, in France and Belgium, the freedom to choose your clothes—Americans have it better. Even on drugs and gay marriage, recent polling data indicates that Americans are catching up to European attitudes. As those changing attitudes become changing laws, Europe may lose its reputation as the land of tolerance.

NEXT: Ladies' Gun Nights Prove Popular at Shooting Ranges

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Europe's tolerance is highly selective, and that it often excludes particular demographics,

    And...gays. Yes, my understanding is that the average Frenchman doesn't think much of the homosexual lifestyle.

    1. Maybe you didn't read all the way to the end?

      1. Yes, I did. But some in the American media were suggesting that the protests were complex and may have been about other things, like austerity.

        Because no one in the American media wants to believe that France qua Euope would be intolerant.

        It just really burns me that the average American doesn't realize just how damned tolerant this country actually is compared with the rest of the world.

        1. Paul, I agree with you 100%. Americans have so much liberty and prosperity, we think we have none.

        2. The problem, Paul, is that it's not fashionable to admit Americans are tolerant. Unfortunately, portraying ourselves as victims is far more trendy and acceptable.

        3. America is by no means free of prejudice (racial, religious, sexual orientation, etc.) but I do agree that people majorly underestimate how tolerant we are compared to other countries. For example, how often is racial bigotry at sporting events an issue here, compared to European soccer?

          1. But the question hasn't really been answered: Why do so many Americans want or even need to believe otherwise about their own country?

            1. because that is what our president, the media and even our schools tell them so that they can continue to denagrate those with differing political views otherwise they have no purpose in life. Why have a democrat party if nothing is wrong. Socialism requires some groups to believe that other groups are keeping them from their goals. therefore create policies to keep those people from obtaining those same goals. I just described the Democrat party.

        4. I'd say a balance of ignorance and apathy.

          The right doesn't care, the stance is fixed largely regardless of France.

          The left would have to rectify a wide array of assertions made. The least of which that you must be atheist/agnostic to be tolerant or that theists are inherently intolerant (specifically wrt Christianity). It's just easier to make up a pseudo-disorder like homophobia, claim to be a victim of it, and ascribe it's source to members of a chosen religious community.

  2. I feel that Europe's reputation for tolerance is largely the creation of elites and people who have never actually lived there.

    1. Dead on 100% right!

    2. The grass is always greener next door that is until you get there.

    3. That is what I think. Liberals are under the impression that Europe is a liberal utopia and the US is nothing more than a bunch of ultra-religious, redneck teabaggers, but my discussions with Europeans tend to show that Europeans are roughly as conservative as Americans and in some cases even more so.

  3. So when have social liberals actually supported freedom of speech? They hate "intolerance" after all.

    1. Back in the 70s and 80s when they were winning the debate.

  4. So, France sucks but French gays can't? Go finger.

  5. Everybody should be able to do whatever they want wherever they want to do it, and somebody else should be forced to foot the bill for it.
    There is no such thing as identity or causality, everything will just work out.

    /subjectivists of every stripe, cosmotarians, anarcho-nihilists

  6. I'd be willing to speculate (though I can't say with any certainty) that xenophobia is actually more prominent in Europe than in the U.S. A homogeneous cultural identity seems to be more important in Europe than in the States. That is why you get complaints about people not being French enough, or whatever. You get those attitudes over here, too, of course, but from the outside looking in, they seem to enjoy more official sanction in Europe. I think this is also due in part to the parliamentary systems that are more prevalent there. Some Muslim nutcase blows up a bomb in Boston, and there is much gnashing of teeth among conservatives, but minarets still stand and women can wear whatever they want. Let's just hope it stays that way.

    1. But 'not being American enough' doesn't really have the same meaning.

      There are so many diverse cultures wadded up in what we call 'American' that it's often incredibly hard to trace them--look at our endless holiday specials on where 'American' Christmas or Halloween comes from and you'll see bits and pieces from all over the world that no one realizes are from other cultures.

      You can find restaurants representing a wide number of ethnic cuisines in most cities and towns--but you can go to a restaurant that serves 'American' cuisine and find dishes from many of those same ethnicities that have been assimilated so completely that they are simply 'American' flavorings.

      Paul had it right--for all the naysaying we get, America IS tolerance. This is what it looks like--A person of Algerian descent telling a person of Argentinian descent that his deep dish pizza is unamerican

      1. "There are so many diverse cultures wadded up in what we call 'American' that it's often incredibly hard to trace them--look at our endless holiday specials on where 'American' Christmas or Halloween comes from and you'll see bits and pieces from all over the world that no one realizes are from other cultures."

        Don't let "American" know about this

      2. Not only that, but my sense of what it means to be an American has everything to do with what you believe and how you live and nothing to do with where you were born, what language you speak, or what you look like. That may not be true of everyone, of course, but that in and of itself is American, as you said. Its about the individual.

      3. Not just "America," but the Americas embody tolerance, as does Australia (and even NZ). Europe, Asia, Africa, not so much.

        1. Seems that you look at Australia in the same way that many leftists in the US gaze upon Europe. Read up on racism, xenophobia, gay rights, crime in Oz. To put it in perspective, Australia is marketing anti-Americanism today with more passion than our friends in Europe and Canada. Seems whenever the pot is called black, they hide behind "documentaries" of how horrible life is in the US, especially for minorities. In the meantime, doesn't Australia contain its nearly 1 million aborigines behind the world's largest barbed wire fence?

          1. I live in Australia and I can tell you that doesn't happen... anymore.

            Australia's experience with its Aboriginal population is pretty similar to the US and Canada. There were programs aimed at destroying Aboriginal culture and segregating them from the white population and most of Australia's Aboriginal population lives in poverty in remote communities in the Outback.

            Also, Australia had a "White Australia Policy" well into the 1960s. But somehow Australians are convinced they are better than Americans when it comes to diversity. Never mind that Greeks and Italians were considered virtually alien into the early 90s.

    2. Have you noticed any explicitly racist or supremacist parties being necessary to form a governing coalition here in the states? Of course Europe is more ethnically obsessed than America. That's largely owing to the fact that each country in Europe has a thousand+ year history and ethnic identity. The United States is a proposition nation. "American" is a state of mind much more so than any specific ethnic identity, for obvious reasons. Being French, however, carries with it an ethnic as well as cultural connotation.

      1. One may say the Democratic party needs explicitly racist coalition for victory.

        1. Arguably true to an extent, and I'm sure some would say the Republicans are dependent on the racist contingent of the white south, but it's far less explicit and a far smaller constituency than in Europe where it is fairly openly acknowledged. That's one thing I actually like about the European political process. It is far less obfuscated than here in the US. If you're a communist, you can say you're a communist. If you're a socialist, you can say you're a socialist. If you're a nationalist, you can say you're a nationalist. You don't have to couch everything you say in some veneer and execute your agenda on the sly after you've duped enough people to get elected.

          1. That would be a treat in American politics and even on the blogs. I have entire threads hijacked on the simple descriptors. As an example, a person stating views in support of single payer/government health service will rage against inferring they are a socialist. Tedious.

    3. The elites always fear backlashes in the US after such incidents, but even after 9/11 there were more anti-Muslim violence in Canada, Australia, and Europe reported than in the US. And I don't think that's because the US conceals its ugly side!

    4. That's like speculating that the sun came up yesterday.

  7. You have to wonder why the MSM and even the gay media in the US is refusing to cover the shocking and widespread anti-gay violence that has been taking place across France for many months leading up to and following legalization of gay marriage. You'd think the most brutal anti-gay violence taking place on the planet right now would be of some interesting to gays, especially gay Americans who love to travel to France. Is this the case of the media protecting France's reputation to keep the socialist fantasy alive?

    1. Probably has more to do with not many Americans care about France.

    2. Now that you mention it, there has been little coverage. Does seem big enough to cover. The footage has been gruesome.

    3. First off, I gotta go with Lynchpin here. Who gives a shit about France? More to the point, who gives a shit about French people rioting. Anyone who pays any attention to European politics know that the French riot at the drop of a croissant. One more garlic fueled hissy-fit really isn't news.

      Secondly, there has been a lot of coverage in the gay media:

      Just follow the links from there.

      1. You gave no links to gay media. It's an obscure blog with links to more obscure blogs.

  8. The Dutch laws on prostitution leave much to be desired, and the situation is growing worse:

    Sex workers, human rights advocates, health officials and many criminologists all agree that the best system is decriminalization, currently found only in New Zealand and New South Wales state, Australia.

    1. What about Nevada?

      1. Clark County still outlaws it, which constitutes about 80% of the state in terms of population and economic importance. It's only 60 miles to the nearest town with legal prostitution though (ironically, I'm moving there next month... for unrelated reasons).

        1. That's what they all say.

      2. Nevada restricts sex workers to a small number of rural brothels owned by a politically-connected few; work conditions in those places are so awful that 70% of Nevada sex workers prefer to work illegally. Of all legalization regimes in the world, Nevada is considered one of the worst (for everyone but the brothel owners, natch).

        1. An expert on brothels! Well, as far as what I've read and researched, the legal sex industry is heavily regulated and politically connected everywhere. But don't sell out us puritans in the US too fast. We have the world's largest porn industry, in part thanks to the 1st amendment. Remember: In "progressive" countries like Canada and Iceland, "hate speech" laws have made circulating pornography very difficult, as it falls under some regulations about portraying women negatively. I've always said, progressives and the religious right basically want the same things.

          1. No, not everywhere. In fact, one of the primary reasons it was decriminalized in NSW was to get rid of the police corruption inevitably found in legalization regimes.

          2. Progressives remind me more of the Religious Right with their attitudes towards society, culture, and science than liberals.

            Progressives are basically people who would have been members of the Religious Right if left-wing ideology hadn't got to them first. They are even just as ignorant of science as the Religious Right, but instead of seeing scientists as a bunch of liars, they see scientists as a bunch of wizards.

            Sorry, I'm getting off on a rant here...

  9. My experience in Europe was anything but tolerant. Upon checking into a modern 4-star hotel near central Amsterdam, my boyfriend and I were told under no circumstances could we share a room with only one bed. At first we thought the reservationists were joking. No one behind the counter was smiling. These were white people in their 30s, and they were dead serious. They downgraded us to a smaller room with two cots. I had never been more humiliated. Nothing like that has every happened to me in the United States. When my boyfriend and were looking for housing in Ohama, Nebraska after a job transfer, apartment complex after apartment complex told us how same-sex partners are considered married regarding their rental agreements. I cannot imagine anyone in Europe even caring enough to suggest that. Americans are far more tolerant than what we want to fashionably admit, certainly not the entertainment industry and the MSM.

    1. "my boyfriend and I were told under no circumstances could we share a room with only one bed"

      Wow, that's ridiculous. Definitely doesn't jive with the narrative of all-encompassing Euro tolerance

    2. Very strange story.

  10. Tolerance

    What an awesome post for GOP types to point at and say, 'This is all that Libertarians care about'.

    1. Liberty is most easily denied those on the fringe of the collectve. I'm proud to be associated with advocates for tolerance.

    2. Ridiculous. Anybody who's read here a while realizes we also care about ferrets, food trucks, and football.

  11. People tend to pick and choose the best attributes of European nations and for a sort of Voltron of enlightenment against which American laws are held.

    It would be like the Portuguese extolling Vermont's gun laws, Wyoming's parks, Texas' growing economy, South Dakota's lack of a sales tax, and Montana's beauty and saying the United States has everything right.

    1. Did you know that Italy bans kissing in cars?

  12. Now thats what I am talking abotu. Wow.

  13. As a french libertarian ("lib?ral" in french) I think america has two big flaw compared to Europe: the penitentiary system and international interventionism.

    On almost everything else (economic freedom, gun control, free speech, religious freedom) america is better.

    But of course Europe is much more politically diverse than the USA: Switzerland is overall freer than France (or the USA).

    1. I'm interested in hearing your opinion on my speculation above about there being more xenophobia in Europe because of the greater reliance on cultural homogeneity.

      1. Maybe xenophobia are less about race and more about culture in Europe than in USA.

        I don't really know and unfortunately my English is not good enough for me to make a argument in that language on an issue as complex as xenophobia in Europe and the USA.

        1. Your English is better than my French. Thanks for the thoughts.

    2. Arn0| 5.1.13 @ 8:42AM |#
      "As a french libertarian ("lib?ral" in french) I think america has two big flaw compared to Europe: the penitentiary system and international interventionism."

      Agreed. We could stop tossing kids in Felony U for smoking a joint, and if other countries provided their own defense, we could quit jumping into every 'problem' we see.

  14. If you think Eleanor`s story is impossible,, four weaks-ago my girlfriend's half sister basically also made $5801 putting in 40 hours a month from there apartment and they're best friend's step-sister`s neighbour has done this for nine months and earned over $5801 part-time from a computer. follow the instructions on this page... go to this site home tab for more detail--- http://WWW.BIG76.COM

  15. what Elaine replied I'm blown away that a student able to earn $5519 in a few weeks on the internet. have you read this web link..

  16. Europe is a mixed bag and it is arguably the most important, complex, and influential continent in the world. It's also features some very diametrically opposing legislation.

    I like its parliamentary system that winds up having more than two political parties at a time. Unfortunately, most of them are moderate or left leaning. It does pretty good in the area of privacy, but this only in the realm of European Union policies, since some member countries, like Britain, have close to the same national security laws as the United States. Switzerland, the land of the eternally neutral, surprised me when I learned they banned the construction of new minarets; there are only four in that entire country.

    France is pretty good when it comes to the separation of church and state, but they make the mistake of instituting it as a social policy with the ban on burqas, which would never fly here in the States. If there is one thing that sets America apart from all other countries, it is its immense respect for freedom of religion, despite some murky histories in that arena (i.e., the ground zero mosque, honing in on Islam when it comes to certain domestic security policies, etc).

    Britain. Obviously, without them, we wouldn't be here today. The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, we took both and ran with'em. We owe much to them, not for loans and such, but rather for the intellectual heritage that made us (the United States) what we are today.

  17. Re Islam in Sweden please consider:
    Suicide bombing;
    paramedics/firemen need police escorts in some neighborhoods;
    car burnings;
    gang rapes;
    honor killings/violence;
    docs who snoop through medical files to report women's "honor";
    docs attacked by husbands when they (male docs) were called to assist in a delivery;
    no finding out sex of fetus, lest a girl be aborted;
    girls/women called "whores" by strangers;
    girls/women told by strangers to cover heads;
    boys/men assaulted for not enforcing sisters' honor;
    loud speaker prayer calls, "No God but Allah! And Mo- is his prophet!";
    increase in prison inmates;
    elderly people and dogs attacked/beaten dead/near dead;
    demands for women-only public pool hrs;
    demands for different free housing;
    demands for different and/or halal food;
    female circumcision;
    benefits fraud;
    police protection of artist who drew Mo-;

    For taxpayers: rationed healthcare;
    shortage of hospital beds;
    closing of emergency and operation rooms;
    rationed ambulences(have led to several deaths);
    coffee, milk, meals rationed for elderly;
    doc/nurse shortages;
    dated medicines, tests, equipment;
    nursing home spots shrink while elderly pop. grows;
    sick people denied benefits - leading some to commit suicide; censurship by media, etc.

    It's a complex situation, but it's not truthful to say that Europeans haven't been tolerant. Swedes (and non-"ethnic" Swedes)are literaly dying in order to finance their State's vision of society.

  18. Swiss voters approved a constitutional ban on new minarets being built

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.