Europeans and Americans

by Benjamin Studebaker

Now that my undergraduate degree in England is over, I’ve started to collate my thoughts regarding the essential distinctions between the European and American variants of civilization. Why do Europeans support universal health care while Americans do not? Why are Europeans more communal? Why are they more supportive of interventionist government policies? These are the sort of things I wish to ponder about today.

When I was an 18 year old student just starting college, I was under the impression that the extent to which European policies differed from American policies was the extent to which European voters differ from American voters. For example, it is a fact that government run health care systems in European countries both provide better care and are more cost-effective than their American counterpart. The explanation I was drawn to in my youth and inexperience was that social science education in Europe was better than in the United States, that European voters were better informed and consequently chose better policies. Under this thinking, it was possible to achieve significant improvements with the existing political structures if we did a better job of educating, of ensuring that people were positively rather than negatively informed.

What I found is that this isn’t really the case at all–your average European is no more knowledgeable about health care policy than your average American is, nor is your average European any more politically conscious. The average European is certainly no more intelligent or knowledgeable than the average American. The tendency among some Europeans to dismiss the American voters as simply intellectually inferior to their European counterparts is misguided, and the tendency among the American left to lionize European voters for their superior voting outcomes is similarly silly. The real reason that Europeans support universal health care is, bizarrely, the same reason that so many Americans are against it–it represents the status quo, what they are used to, and they have adopted a series of emotional rationalizations that they employ to defend that status quo. What really rules, in both Europe and America, is a soft conservatism.

It is the case that health policy in many European countries is better than the American equivalent, but support for health policy is not determined by quality of policy in highly developed countries, it is determined by what people are accustomed to. The most effective arguments in both the United States and Europe remain sentimental and anecdotal. Defenders of private health care in the US point to anecdotes, nasty isolated incidents of Europeans waiting too long in queues for procedures. Similarly, defenders of universal health care in Europe point to anecdotes, nasty isolated incidents of Americans getting denied care due to financial inability and dying as a result. The overwhelming majority of voters in both the United States and Europe never bother to go to the statistics to find out how common the horror stories are. They never bother to find out what the real systemic consequences of these policies are; they settle for one-offs that support their status quo prejudices.

This still leaves open the question of how it was that Europe came by policies like universal health care in the first place. Perhaps European voters were more knowledgeable or more engaged in the past, and it’s merely present generations that are no better? No such luck–there are clear structural reasons why in the post-war period European states adopted universal health care while the United States rejected it. The first countries to adopt universal healthcare systems were all countries whose internal politics were deeply influenced by the World War II experience–the UK adopted in 1948, the Nordic countries adopted in the 50’s and 60’s, Japan adopted in 1961, and the various other major developed economies mostly adopted over the course of the 60’s and 70’s, with a few trailers adopting in the 80’s. These countries no longer had a “status quo” post-WWII. For Britain, World War II meant that the entire country was under rationing, that bombs fell from the sky daily, that the entire system of how things were done had to be entirely geared to the war effort. There was no escaping it, and when the war ended there was a sincere opportunity to completely start over in many areas–you needed new towns, new infrastructure, to replace what had been destroyed, and you had to reorganize the economy for peacetime purposes. Many of these European countries also simultaneously lost their colonies during the post-war period, and the net effect was a climate of constant flux and change. The new policies Europeans chose were a reaction against fascism, against the far right attitude that some people were inherently better than others and more deserving of government services.

By contrast, US domestic policy was much more influenced by the Cold War than by World War II, a war that, while it required a large American commitment, did not shatter the fabric of American domestic policy. Cities were not bombed out, economic capacity did not have to be recovered. Unlike in Europe, where the war destroyed productive capacity, American industrial output increased over the course of the war. The real catalyst for change in US politics was competition with the Soviet Union, and that competition fostered precisely the opposite reaction. Communism is not like fascism, it is not an ethos of the absolute superiority of some over others but an ethos of the absolute equality of all with all. Universal health care in Europe was and is a way of denying and refuting Nazism, but in the United States it was viewed as a concession to communism, an attitude that still prevailed even in the recent debate over Obamacare (which is not a government-run universal health care system). It still  generates “fake communist propaganda” images like this one:

While healthcare is just one prominent example that comes to mind, I think this principle, or something similar, can be found to account for most of the differences between the American or European outlook. Neither Americans nor Europeans are intellectually superior to each other or more or less ignorant than one another. The extent to which the system of the former or latter is superior is not caused by increased voter competence at any given time, but by structural and environmental factors. The people themselves do not improve their political capacities with time or practice as J.S. Mill suggests with his notion of the “progressive man”. Their level of competence is constant, the differences in their behaviors merely indicative of the different contextual stimuli to which they respond.