Skip to comments.why europeans just dont get america (someone in europe gets it)
Posted on 05/19/2002 9:05:39 AM PDT by TheRedSoxWinThePennant
Sweet land of liberty
Britain and Europe have free governments, says Mark Steyn, but only in the US are the people truly free
Exactly 50 years ago, the Voice of America sent along a team to my small towns annual town meeting to record the event for broadcast behind the Iron Curtain. Asked why theyd chosen us, the VOA said that our town meeting was considered one of the best in the country and it would help show millions of East Europeans trapped in totalitarian states how democracy worked. My neighbours gave a non-committal Yankee shrug and then got down to business. Among the highlights: they voted to re-elect Herbert Perkins and Harry Franklin as our two-man police department; to approve the playing of beano i.e., bingo in town; to raise $1,200 to repair a bridge and $150 for gravel on Rachel Millers road, Miss Miller to give a like amount.
Its not the same since you moved, Martha.
What the Bolsheviks made of all this we never found out. But we have a pretty good idea what the Europeans make of it: they think its bunk. If you want to know how the EU operates in any particular area, the quickest way is to figure out how America does it and then work out the opposite. The death penalty? In America, states decide: Louise Woodward is lucky she killed that baby in Massachusetts rather than Texas. In Europe, the EU decides: you cant even join the thing unless youve abolished capital punishment. America is ineligible for EU membership, a Eurograndee told me triumphantly in Paris last month, as if this news would somehow depress me.
The last Frenchman to get the United States was Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America (1840) he wrote, Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science; they bring it within peoples reach, they teach men how to use and to enjoy it. A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty. Thats exactly the phrase: the spirit of liberty. In the hours and days after 11 September, British friends kept asking me why it was Mayor Giuliani who was taking charge on the streets of Lower Manhattan rather than President Bush. The implication seemed to be that the mayor is some kind of understudy, that the system isnt working unless the top guys there. But thats to get it exactly backwards. Its in the mayor and the police and fire departments and other municipal institutions that you measure the health of a society.
Trundling around Britain, Europe and the Middle East in recent weeks, I cant say I detected the spirit of liberty anywhere. I felt its absence in many places in the impotence and fatalism of prosperous English property owners barricaded into their homes behind their window locks and laser alarms because nothing can be done about the yobboes lobbing the bollards through the bus shelter until David Blunkett comes up with a nationally applicable policy on the subject. And even then hes likely to have filched it from some American police chief like the broken window theory, of which one hears more in Britain than the US these days.
Thats what the democratic deficit does: it snuffs out the spirit of liberty. The issue is not how to make the chaps in Brussels more accountable, but why all that stuff is being dealt with in Brussels in the first place why so much of the primary-school science can only be entrusted to the laboratorys men in white coats, like Chris Patten. Eurocrats who spent much of the Eighties mocking President Reagans trickle-down economics are happy to put their faith in trickle-down nation-building: if you create the institutions of a European state, a European state will somehow take root underneath.
It doesnt work that way over here. The other day, I went to a party for my neighbour Becky, who was retiring after many years as secretary in the town office. Afterwards, I came home and heard that America had withdrawn from the International Criminal Court. These are really two sides of the same coin. At Beckys party, about half the towns adult population were there, many of whom held elected office in municipal government: there were the town clerk and sexton, the cemetery commissioners and library trustees, all elected. There were members of the school board, who, despite being part-time and unpaid, have more control over curriculum and taxation than the Welsh Assembly does. There was Dina, my hairdresser and also the school district treasurer, who cuts the cheques for the teachers each week. There was Freddie, our road agent, who maintains the highways and decides the load limits. Think about that: the weight of the trucks on our roads is the responsibility of an elected official right here in town; in Milton-under-Wychwood, the weight of the juggernauts rumbling through the village is decided by Brussels.
Most British politicians reckon this sort of things a joke. But youd be surprised: give people democratic control of roads, education, law and order, public services and so forth, and it does wonders for their disposition. These things are all primary-school science, but in Britain theyre mostly reserved to quangoes staffed by baronesses. The baronesses are perfectly pleasant, but its unclear to me why their skills are so highly regarded that they should supplant responsible self-government. Meanwhile, whats left to elected officials is trivial. Fleet Street finds it hilarious when Clint Eastwood gets elected mayor of Carmel or Sonny Bono mayor of Palm Springs typical bloody Yanks, hung up on shallow celebrities. But, to the contrary, the celebrities are acknowledging that, when it counts, theyre citizens. Thats the spirit of liberty: plumbers, doctors, strippers, movie stars get steamed about crime or zoning regulations or logging restrictions and decide to do something about it. How come Liz Hurley or Robbie Williams never run for mayor or councillor? Because, like non-celeb Britons, they know its not worth it.
At some conference a couple of years back, I suggested to an affable Tory quango baroness that the Conservatives should become the party of decentralisation. She thought this was ridiculous, but then she seemed to have a difficult time getting a handle on US federalism in general she kept talking about the American police and the American education system, neither of which exists in any meaningful sense. In America, power is vested in We, the People and leased upwards, through town, county, state and federal government, in ever more limited doses. By the time you get to the organs of embryo world government like the International Criminal Court, Americans are inclined to feel thats leasing it a little too far. A couple of miles from me, a farmer has spray-painted across his barn in giant letters a motto that speaks for many of his neighbours: US out of UN now. America is the only Western power in which a significant proportion of voters disdain the UN and all its works, and where for many years Congress declined to pay the countrys membership dues. Europeans assume this is some sort of primitive, redneck fear of multilateralism, but in fact its an entirely reasonable wariness of diluting the sovereignty of the American people in what is, in large part, a front for anti-democratic forces.
Conversely, in Britain, power is vested in the Crown and leased downwards in ever more limited doses. Even the language of alleged decentralists devolution, subsidiarity assumes that the natural place for power to concentrate is at the centre. It seems to me the reason that theres no real mass movement against loss of sovereignty to Europe is that, unlike small-town Yankees, most Britons dont feel they have any sovereignty to begin with.
Britain and Europe have free governments but they dont have the spirit of liberty, and they suffer as a consequence. If you were to apply Tom Ridges system of colour-coded security alerts from blue to red via green, yellow and orange to the entire planet, youd wind up with something along these lines: the United States, code green; the Britannic world, code yellow; Europe, code orange; the Middle East, code red. The Arab world has no democracy, and little prospect of any, and so its much-vaunted Arab street is, in fact, a symbol of weakness. Folks jump up and down in the street when theyve nowhere else to go. The Arabs are world leaders at yelling excitedly and shouting Death to the Great Satan! and are world losers at everything else.
Western Europe, though, isnt much healthier. In America, Canada and Britain, were the heirs to so many centuries of peaceful constitutional evolution that we find it hard to comprehend the thin ice on which European democracy skates. When we look back on the Seventies, its Jimmy Carter, Pierre Trudeau and Harold Wilson, all of whom I could have done without. But they look pretty good compared with a stroll down memory lane in Portugal, Spain and Greece, where Seventies nostalgia means Salazar, Franco and the Colonels. In most of Europe, there simply is no tradition of sustained peaceful democratic evolution. After 215 years, the US Constitution is not only older than the French, German, Italian, Belgian, Spanish and Greek constitutions, its older than all of them put together. Whether the forthcoming European constitution will be the one that sticks remains to be seen, but I wouldnt bet on it. The curse of the Continent is big ideas: Communism, Fascism, European Union. Generally speaking, each of these wacky notions is a response to the last dud: the pre-war German middle classes put their faith in Hitler as a bulwark against the Bolsheviks; likewise, the postwar German middle classes put their faith in European integration as a bulwark against a resurgence of Nazism.
The ideal Euro-scenario was postwar Austria, a two-party one-party state where, whether you voted centre-left or centre-right, you ended up with the same centre-left-right coalition government. Then Jorg Haider came along. The EU sees itself as the answer to the problem of Le Pen, Haider, Fortuyn, et al. Le Pen, Haider and co. see themselves as the answer to the problem of the EU. The correct answer is probably Neither of the above, but the stampede of politicians and press to demonise Pim Fortuyn suggests its the Europhiles who are in the advanced state of derangement: when youre that eager to tag as a fascist the guy whos standing up to the fascists (the Islamofascists, that is), youre in pretty bad shape. France is even more diseased: if an election with only one viable candidate, no debate, a cheerleading media, a blind eye to corruption, and public demonstrations with bussed-in schoolchildren strengthens your democracy, then Im moving to Zimbabwe.
Britain, Canada, Australia and the rest are in better shape. But its weird to see the suffocating ubiquity of Tony Blair described as presidential, when in truth he wields more power as the Queens First Minister than a US president could ever dream of. A humble prime minister can effectively abolish one house of the national legislature, install toytown parliaments with variable powers in three-quarters of the realm and chop whats left into bogus invented regions. If you live in, say, Banbury, you might wind up in South Midlands (North), North Midlands (South), West Midlands (East), Greater Thames Valley or Lower Mercia, but, wherever it is, the decision is entirely out of your hands. No US president can carve off the western bit of New Hampshire and the eastern bit of Vermont and rename it Central Region or Humberside.
Yet, for all its imperfections, Westminster democracy has delivered an unglamorous stability: unlike America with life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, Canadas constitutional preamble commits it to peace, order and good government, which sounds less primal and more bureaucratic but is still more than the Continent has managed. The great mystery is why Britain, having successfully exported its democratic structures around the world, is abandoning them at home to subordinate itself to a political and legal culture with which it has nothing in common.
You would think, would you not, that, if Europe were really serious about avoiding the horrors of the last century, it might try and learn from the two most successful and enduring forms of democracy in the world: the Westminster parliamentary system and American federalism. Instead, these are precisely the forms the EU is most determined to avoid. The French spend so much time demonising America as a hegemon and hyperpower that they miss the point: the US made it big by keeping things small, by recognising that the most important part of democracy is the first rung on the ladder. Thomas Jefferson considered New England town government the wisest invention ever devised by the wit of man for the perfect exercise of self-government and for its preservation. The last word is the important part: anyone can start a democracy, but keeping it going depends on an engaged, participating citizenry, not just folks who shuffle along to the polls once every four years to vote for some guy from a centrally approved list of party hacks. The spirit of liberty is at least as important as a free government, and, in its reflexive distaste for the former, the European Union is unlikely to end up with the latter.
Too bad it's a Canadian!
Huey and Earl Long have got to be chuckling, wherever they are.
Upon what enduring values does European government presently rest? Basically, on whatever crazy, utopian ideas the chattering classes have come up with most recently. They are sure they know what's best for ordinary citizens, and they aren't about to ask the great unwashed what they think about it.
This is precisely my objection to proportional representation systems. All the power for nominating is held centrally. thet presuppose a highly centralized government.
And they call that Democracy?
Who's party is it, anyway?
Two years ago, we had a Republican State Senator from Stillwater, Minnesota named Gary Laidig, who had accumulated a voting record far more liberal than many of his constituents were comfortable with, and who had been basically ignoring constituent contacts.
At his district's endorsing convention, a woman named Michelle Bachmann asked to speak, trying to convince the delegates of the importance of scrapping the state's current education mandate, called the "Profile of Learning". As she finished, Laidig made a remark about "we've had our humor for the evening."
The delegates were not amused.
Now Michelle had been lobbying for a platform change, she hadn't intended to run for the seat. But one of the delegates nominated her, it was seconded, she said she'd run if she was nominated, and bang, she was endorsed with 80% of the votes.
The party bigwigs were flabbergasted - the Senate leadership was quick to jump in to support Laidig in a primary fight against Bachmann. At the primary, Bachmann won, 81% to 19%. And then she won the general election.
It looks like exactly the same thing is going to be happening in Rochester, the incumbent, Shiela Kiscaden, did not get the endorsement, someone else did. The Senate Republican leadership is backing Kiscaden in the primary fight - we'll see what happens.
I know the statists think this sort of thing is messy, that the powers-that-be, being so much wiser than us peons, are better placed to make these decisions. But I don't buy it.
This sort of thing is essential to democracy.
Well, if it comes again to resurrecting a defeated, war
ravaged nation, look for the US to do it again. If, on
the other hand, you are suggesting that the US finance
and direct the future of Europe, nobody here wants that
and nobody in Europe would tolerate it. The nation/state
is the only way to go. As for the rest of the world, you all
get to go to hell in your own basket. Would you really
want it any other way? It's that 'freedom' you admire.
It entails the freedom to fail.
Political entities above that of the nation/state,
cannot represent the cultural and social asperations
of the nations, if the definition of nation can be a
group of people with similar desires and political
beliefs. Thus the EU, UN, and to a large measure,
the federal government of the US, tend to destroy
regional culture and the freedom to live as one
after all US economy and so is the world Economy goes hand by hand.
I think capitalism and free markets empower progress
and are the only way to go. However, every nation must
be free to make its own way. Bear in mind, I am a
libertarian, and many on these boards would disagree
Would you really want it any other way? It's that 'freedom' you admire.
It entails the freedom to fail. --- What other way?
I may be wrong, but you implied by bringing up American
concern with the world future in terms of the Marshal plan
that the US must somehow keep other countries afloat.
I would not want it that way. I believe to succeed, you
must also be free to fail. Japan has to save Japan.
And yes, there is such a thing as communism.
Having money wouldn't do you much good in the USSR, where there was little to buy.
I never lived under communism, but had friends
who did. The thing that surprised me was that
so many refugees, in this case from Hungary, went
back there to live. They were just too stressed out
at the thought of losing a job, of having to make
their own way in society (this was Canada) that
they would rather give up their freedom and live
a greatly diminshed life than face the responsibilites
of liberty. Sad.
After WWII, we basically governed large parts of Europe, which made things fairly simple for Marshall. We don't now, and we shouldn't.
I would love to see Europeans demand their leaders to make them more like the U.S. I don't know that there is much we can do to bring about this type of outcry, however.
Truthfully, we U.S. conservatives have enough problems here. There are a lot of Americans -- think Clinton, Gore, etc. -- who want to make us more like Europeans.
Eastern Europe is changing. Today I was talking with a lady who came over from Romania. She and her American husband went back for a visit. There's stuff on store shelves now. And you can legally buy a full-auto AK-47 in a store for $150. Now, what was that about "...than face the responsibilites of liberty"?
I believe you. What would suggest we could do to increase freedom in Europe? Seriously.