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European exceptionalism (crosspost from CT)

February 3rd, 2010

I’d like to broaden John Holbo’s CT discussion of the US as a center-right nation to consider the broader idea that the US is, in some sense, exceptional. As Barack Obama correctly pointed out not so long ago, every nation is exceptional in its own way, which tends to undermine the idea that any nation is specially exceptional.

Still, compared to the developed world in general, it seems obvious that the US is different in lots of ways: an outlier in terms of nationalism, military power, religiosity, working hours and inequality of outcomes and (in the opposite direction) in terms of government intervention, health outcomes and other measures typically associated with welfare states. Among these the outstanding differences arise from the fact that the US aspires, with some success, to be globally hegemonic in military terms and (with rather less success) in economic terms as well.

But, when you think about it, there is nothing exceptional here.

Almost every state of any significance in history has aspired to dominate its known world. In the last century, Britain, Germany, Russia and even France[1] aspired to this role, and right now Russia and China are keen to try. Religiosity, militarism, inequality, and governments that do little for their subjects are the norm rather than the exception. Long hours of hard work have been the lot of humankind at least since the arrival of agriculture.

The real exception to all of this is Europe[2]. The largest economic aggregate in world history, it has enough military power to repel any invader, but is deeply uninterested in using this power to any more glorious end. It grows by a process of reluctant accretion, controlled by ever more onerous admission requirements. In all of history, it would be hard to find anything comparable in terms of pacifism, godlessness, equality, leisure for the masses or public provision of services.[3]

Then the EU itself. There aren’t many historical parallels and those that I can think of (the US under the Articles of Confederation and the Commonwealth of Independent States, for example) were rapidly abandoned. It’s ungainly, unloved and bureaucratic, and yet it has persisted for 50+ years (nearly 60 if you count the ESC). The Great Powers of the 19th are now, with marginal exceptions, parts of this post-sovereign collective.

It’s for these reasons that American views of Europe resemble de Tocqueville in reverse. Something so unprecedented, and against the laws of nature, they think, cannot possibly survive, let alone prosper. And yet it does.

fn1. As pointed out in comments, the bloody failure of these attempts between 1914 and 1945 helped cure most European countries of belief in national greatness. But Russia, which suffered more than anywhere else, has seemingly gone the other way.

fn2. That’s not to deny, of course, that there are lots of differences within Europe. Nevertheless, on the criteria described above, almost any European state appears as an outlier in historical terms.

fn3. The other developed countries (Japan and the wealthier bits of East Asia, Aust/NZ, Canada and, to the extent it can be regarded as outside Europe, the UK, sit somewhere in between.

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  1. Rationalist
    February 3rd, 2010 at 17:32 | #1

    In all of the important European countries liberals, conservative and Christian democrats seem to be doing very well.

  2. sjk
    February 3rd, 2010 at 19:33 | #2

    The EU is exceptional for one clear reason – it is not a ‘State’ like the US or China, or indeed, Germany.

    States are bound by their borders, the EU, not so much. It has a built-in mechanism that allows it to expand by simply adding new states. There is no structural limit to this growth, meaning that in theory, the EU could one day cover the entire planet.

    I think it might be prudent for Australia to investigate/debate/consider joining the EU while it is still small enough for us to have some influence over its cultural, political and economic direction.

  3. Alice
    February 3rd, 2010 at 19:36 | #3

    @Rationalist
    except the US and Australia Ratio.

  4. Alice
    February 3rd, 2010 at 19:40 | #4

    @Rationalist
    Sorry Ratio – you did say European but even that is a rose coloured view “liberals, conservative and Christian democrats seem to be doing very well.”

    I dont see that in this chart -conservatives are doing badly..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_political_parties_in_Europe_by_pancontinental_organisation

    But them you though Monckton was doing fantastic too didnt you Ratio?

  5. Alicia
    February 3rd, 2010 at 19:46 | #5

    “The real exception to all of this is Europe[2]. The largest economic aggregate in world history, it has enough military power to repel any invader, but is deeply uninterested in using this power to any more glorious end. It grows by a process of reluctant accretion, controlled by ever more onerous admission requirements. In all of history, it would be hard to find anything comparable in terms of pacifism, godlessness, equality, leisure for the masses or public provision of services.[3] ”

    You seem to be collapsing recent history into the relatively very recent past and thus this para to me is nonsensical historically,

  6. Rationalist
    February 3rd, 2010 at 19:59 | #6

    @Alice
    Umm… what? A political party existing under a particular banner or not is not indicative of a particular ideology succeeding.

    Take a look at the European countries that matter the most:

    UK – New Labour (Centre) about to be replaced by the Conservatives. (Centre Right)
    France – Christian/liberal democratic/Gaullist President and PM (Centre Right).
    Germany – Christian Democrat Chancellor in coalition with the liberal democrats. (Centre Right)
    Italy – Conservative/liberal democratic PM. (Centre Right).
    Spain – Socialist PM and hoo boy, they are paying for it :P (Left). Does spain still have an economy?
    Poland – Christian democrat/conservative/liberal PM/President.
    Romania – as above.
    Netherlands – Christian democrat/conservative/liberal PM.
    Greece – Leftist PM/President, wow they are sure paying for it. I wouldn’t be surprised if they default.

  7. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:05 | #7

    Institutionally I think the EU is superior to the US in several ways. Firstly the member states retain sovereignty and military capacity and could readily fight successfully for secesion if it came to that. Each state has a veto vote on any tax centralisation and centralised taxation remains weak. Each state is responsible for it’s own debts. There is no centralised price fixing allowed (eg no EU minimum wage). There is no centralised system of health care, state education or welfare (unless you’re a farmer). And EU citizens retain a hostility towards EU government that is even more impressive than US hostility to their federal overlords. In spite of some seriously stupid EU regulations the EU remains mostly a pact that enables free trade, free movement and a common currency. Even the EU central bank has a more sane mandate that the US equivalent.

    On the down side the Europeans tend to be wacky socialists at heart.

  8. Alicia
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:11 | #8

    @Rationalist

    Rationalist, since you too seem to be oblivious to 20th century history, a mere blink of the eyelid away in human history terms, as we all appreciate, then you are not worth conversing with.

    Hit the history books, there’s a good chap, and you might be worth engaging with on matters political-historic.

  9. Alice
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:18 | #9

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    And Terje – you forgot one thing…the EU tends to have a stronger social welfare safety net than the US.

  10. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:25 | #10

    Alice – there is no EU social welfare safety net. There are some handouts to farmer but hat is the extent of it.

  11. gerard
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:26 | #11

    recent history to start with, the “socialists” (socialist in inverted commas since socialism has been defunct for decades) in Greece have only been in power since October last year so I’m not sure how you can blame them for Greece’s economic mess. Spain has had a “socialist” government since 2004 iirc, but I’m not sure which “socialist” policies explained why the global real estate bubble burst so hard there and in Ireland – perhaps they should have done what Rudd did with a big fat socialist “first home buyers” hand out to keep housing prices high. Why were the socialists in Spain elected? Because of the Iraq War, which Rationalist no doubt thinks was so very rational. Rationalist is still on his rightwing-hack training wheels and doesn’t really have much in the way of an understanding of what he’s in favor of. The rightwing parties in France, Germany, UK etc are all far to the left of Obama on just about any policy measure. In economic terms there is, of course, one country in Europe that is a smoking crater, and that is Iceland, which deregulated its financial system and was praised to the skies by every rightwing think-tank saying that all other countries should do the same.

  12. Alice
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:26 | #12

    @Rationalist
    Ratio

    UK – far more representation to the left of the spectrum than the right (liberal democrat hardly centre right).
    France – full spectrum (left right) of representation in their parliaments.
    Germany -more parliamentary representation from movements from the middle to the left of the spectrum than to the right…

    Ratio..Im not going to put up with you spinning the truth here. I wont go on with examples of where you are blatantly misprepresenting facts. Its in my link (not your hubris).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Table_of_political_parties_in_Europe_by_pancontinental_organisation

  13. gerard
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:34 | #13

    Yes Alice, but you’re forgetting Berlusconi, now there’s an admirable conservative.

  14. Alice
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:38 | #14

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    Terje – says “there are some handouts to the farmer but that is the extent of it (EU welfare safety net). Terje you need to do some reading, seriously. You just made that up – either that or you think people are silly enough to beleive you.

    Yes – the EU overall does have a stronger welfare safety net than the US. Perhaps thats what makes then a stronger economy, and their currency worth more.

    From OECD stats
    http://www.oecd.org/document/9/0,3343,en_2649_34637_38141385_1_1_1_1,00.html

    Publicly Mandated Social Expenditure (as % of GDP, 2003)

    France 29.8
    Germany 29.5
    Sweden 29.2
    Belgium 26
    Italy 25.3
    Austria 23.9
    Denmark 23.8
    Norway 23.8
    Iceland 23.2
    Portugal 23.2
    UK 22.8
    Finland 22.7
    Czech Republic 21.5
    Netherlands 20.6
    Spain 19.6
    Canada 19.5
    United States 18.9
    Slovak Republic 17.8
    Ireland 15.6

    Fiscal support for families (as % of GDP, 2003)
    *Includes cash, services, and tax breaks for families*

    Denmark 4
    France 3.8
    Norway 3.6
    Sweden 3.5
    United Kingdom 3.4
    Iceland 3.2
    Austria 3.1
    Finland 3.0
    Germany 3.0
    Ireland 2.6
    Slovak Republic 2.4
    Czech Republic 2.4
    Belgium 2.4
    Netherlands 2.1
    Portugal 1.7
    United States 1.4

  15. Alice
    February 3rd, 2010 at 20:41 | #15

    @gerard
    Gerard – Berlusconi – is the firepower president of Italy! He is only conservative when he is out of bed and in front of a camera.

  16. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    February 3rd, 2010 at 21:18 | #16

    Alice – what is your list meant to prove? If your point is that most EU member states spend a lot on social welfare then that is a point that was never in contention. I simply stated that there is no EU social welfare safety net. Just as there is no EU health care system or EU minimum wage. All these activities remain devolved to the individual member states.

  17. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    February 4th, 2010 at 07:44 | #17

    p.s. As they should in the US.

  18. Justus
    February 4th, 2010 at 13:18 | #18

    States are bound by their borders, the EU, not so much. It has a built-in mechanism that allows it to expand by simply adding new states. There is no structural limit to this growth, meaning that in theory, the EU could one day cover the entire planet.

    I find your argument on this point unpersuasive. Every state has “no structural limit” to their growth. Article IV, Section 3 of the US Constitution gives a built-in mechanism that allows the US to expand simply by adding new states. (Which should be obvious given knowledge of US history and the United States’ spread across North America.) This means that, in theory, the US could one day cover the entire planet. (It already includes non-contiguous possessions like Alaska and Hawaii so perhaps not entirely far-fetched.)

    The Australian Constitution has a similar provision in Chapter VI (New States), giving Australia a built-in mechanism that allows it to expand simply by adding new states. That means that, in theory, Australia could one day cover the entire planet.

    I assume that virtually every government on planet has in-built mechanisms to add new states.

    Yes, the EU is still growing but we’re only 50 years in. The US kept adding states for the first 170 years of its existence. Eventually the US reached a point where the majority failed to see a benefit in admitting new states. The EU is already seeing similar complaints about “non-European” countries like Turkey that want to be admitted.

  19. Rationalist
    February 4th, 2010 at 15:40 | #19

    @Alice
    I was merely commenting on the European parties in power, there are plenty of leftist, communist, socialist parties in Europe. They certainly exist and have a small and cute membership base but they share one thing… they are all out of power in the countries that matter.

    In Germany, the party with the biggest increase in representation in 2009 came from the Free Democrats. A pro business, pro privatisation, pro tax cut party who are now in government with the CDU/CSU.

  20. gerard
    February 4th, 2010 at 16:32 | #20

    the large 2009 increase in the Free Democrats vote was a protest against the mainstream conservative parties (whose vote fell dramatically) by true believers who correctly recognize how statist they actually are. maybe one day they’ll achieve power and turn Germany into another Iceland.

  21. Alice
    February 4th, 2010 at 19:34 | #21

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Utter hairsplit Terje and you know it.

  22. Alice
    February 4th, 2010 at 19:40 | #22

    @Rationalist
    I woyuld call parliamentary presence in power Ratio….I dont know about you….you still didnt read that link did you…of course there are plenty of parties anywhere Ratio- but this is a list of parliamentary representatives.

    Parliamentary presence doesnt not mean “out of power” and the leading party does not mean “in power”. Are you naive? You cannot heuristically determine the left right leanings by which party is the leadership party. You should know that Ratio. It comes down to majority power Ratio, in whatever houses exist, and the leading party may not have it (majority power).

    You dont get off that lightly. Watch yourself – you are demonstrating complete “wrong headedness” here.

  23. Rationalist
    February 5th, 2010 at 19:03 | #23

    @Alice
    I await statistics, oh wait, they back up my argument. Never mind and good night!

  24. Alice
    February 5th, 2010 at 19:48 | #24

    @Rationalist
    Better you go to bed early Ratio – because you are dreaming while you are still awake – that my stats actually backed up your argument that there was no power for anything but right wing parties in Europe and then you attempted to suggest no left wing parties and anything but the right had any power in Europe at all ie they exist but “they had now power”.

    I show you parliamentary representation of numerous parties to the centre and the left with parliamentary representation in Europe…and what do you do? Go to bed early. Well its best you toddle off then…with your warm milk and your tail between your legs.

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