Misunderstanding Europe

Americans generally do not understand Europe or European politics very well, believing in stereotypes and caricatures, often warped for political purposes.   For instance, during the health care debate horrible stories of long waits and “rationed care” were given as why we don’t want to “be like Europe,” but those stories painted a false idea of what health care in Europe is like.  The reality is that almost everyone gets quality health care, usually with a doctor they know, and without long waits or denial of services.   That’s one reason why Europeans in no way want to give up their health care systems.   After all, you can find as many if not more stories of poor health care or insurance company nightmares cherry picking the US news.

And that’s the problem with lack of knowledge.  If you don’t know a subject well, be it climate change, health care, foreign policy, the nature of Islam, or whatever, it’s very easy to grab on to short often emotive polemics and take them as reality.   If they are well written and the author seems certain, then the reader often accepts it as true, especially if it feeds into existing stereotypes or ideological biases. A coherent world view can be made up of these bits, strung together uncritically, especially by people who like simple straight forward explanations for a complex world.

If you read pundits on the right, Europe is a wimpy pseudo-socialist set of states, unable to field a quality military, and being overtaken by Muslim immigrants.  Some even claim sharia law is gaining traction, as Europeans give into Muslims in hopes that they’ll be satisfied (fitting the ‘appeasement’ meme many ascribe to Europe).  Moreover, the social welfare programs of Europe are dismissed as obsolete, doomed to collapse because of demographic change as Europe ages.   This view of Europe is utterly misguided, yet persists almost as a “matter of course” amongst may conservatives.

On social welfare programs, there is a broad consensus throughout Europe (varying by degrees between countries) that modern industrialized states should guarantee the basics needed for relatively equal opportunity to succeed: education, health care, protection from unemployment, nutrition, and pensions for old age.   The latter, of course, is a reward for contributing to society for decades, and presumably raising children who now become productive.   If you look at any health statistic, EU states usually out perform the US, even though the US pays 16% of its GDP for health care, while Europeans pay 8-10% (and the US GDP is higher per capita).    European health care systems do have to be reformed to remain viable, but an American style system would be too expensive — and unlike theirs, ours doesn’t even cover everyone!

The militaries in Europe are very well trained and well equipped.   True, the forces are smaller in number than those of the US, but this reflects a European view that warfare has changed.  The era of major armies battling in large numbers is a thing of the past, at least in the first world.  They emphasize mobility and intelligence.   If a credible threat emerged, the Europeans could expand their forces, but at this point it seems like a waste of money — after all, even spending half the world’s military budget the US stumbled in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Europe has no desire to get involved in conflicts like those.

What about demographic change?  EU fertility rates are low, about 1.5 (as opposed to 2.04 for the US).  These vary, Germany is at 1.34, Great Britain at 1.7, Italy at 1.28, but France is up at 2.0.   The French have done this in part by giving very generous protections for new mothers.   Recognizing the dangers of population decline (fewer workers supporting more pensioners), states give benefits to mothers women her could only dream of.   Guarantees that the job will be there, longer maternity leaves, increased pay, and child care services are provided.   And though the post-war “boomers” are now turning 65, it will take awhile for the cost to get to be so high that the system would become unsustainable.  Pensions now cost the French 12% of GDP, and by 2030 that will rise to 16% if reforms are not made.

That’s expensive, but not debilitating.  And throughout Europe reforms are being made.   They know that the systems created in the sixties were based on having a large productive working population alongside a small group of retirees likely to live less than a decade after retirement.   Europeans understand that they need to adapt it to new demographic realities.   Yet it won’t require draconian cuts, modest timely reforms can make a significant impact.    Countries are already making these reforms, and have been for some time.   While one reads about protests in France, the reality is that the French government has the support of the people to make changes, and overall political systems in Europe are less prone to gridlock than the US system.   Moreover, outside of a few problem countries, their debt and deficit problems are under control, and unlike in the US, private debt is not a problem.  Indeed, European countries still have net savings, meaning that overall they do not have the massive total debt that the US has.  For us, private debt is as severe or more severe than government debt.

Another factor that could help Europe is immigration.   Despite the hype, Islam really isn’t something Europeans should fear.   Right now Muslims number about 20 million in Europe, or about 4% of the population.   The largest number, 5 million, are in France, about 8% of the population, the Netherlands is next with 5%.   The numbers could double in the next twenty years, and some say that 20% of Europeans could be Muslim by 2050.    This is a significant minority, but not large enough to “take over.”

Some claim that “Sharia law” is spreading in Europe.   It’s not.  France, in fact, is flexing its secular state by banning religious symbols from schools and public buildings, and President Sarkozy even talked about banning the burka completely.   Anti-clerical traditions from the French revolution persist, and affect attitudes towards Islam.  Only in Great Britain in very specific cases within the Muslim community has Sharia law been allowed, and that’s primarily due to a loophole in British law which may be closed.  Fear of Sharia is a red herring, designed to appeal to the emotions of those who want to see Islam as some kind of dangerous enemy.

The Europeans do have to overcome their ethnic based notions of identity in order to allow integration of minorities into their societies.  That has been difficult to do, as “blood” so long has defined European self-identity.  Yet immigration can provide labor needed to support the growing number of elderly and Muslims in Europe tend to modernize.  For all the stories of some radical knocking off a Dutch film maker or groups in London selling violently extremists tracts, most Muslims adopt western ideals and adjust their religious practices to fit their new surroundings.   Since Islam as a religion is struggling to adopt to the modern era, European Muslims may lead the way and provide a model for the rest of the Islamic world.   Better integration into European societies could help bridge cultural gaps.

These are not minor problems.   French riots in 2007 show the dangers of ghettoizing and marginalizing immigrants.   Muslims that come to Europe, usually from Africa, are not especially religious or radical.   But there are forces wanting to radicalize the youth and foster a war between Islam and the West.  It’s important that the Europeans don’t make the extremists’ job easier by pushing immigrants into separate communities where they do not have a chance to integrate.  The fact these issues are being debated and discussed openly and realistically give me no reason to think the Europeans won’t be up to these challenges.    In any event, the next time someone drones on about how horrible things are in Europe, don’t believe it.

  1. #1 by renaissanceguy on January 4, 2011 - 23:28

    You make the common mistake of writing about the state as though it is a person–a person who can provide for young mothers and support pensioners. It is not. A state is a collection of individual people–individual people who should be doing those things for themselves.

    More later.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on January 5, 2011 - 00:22

    Well, you’re taking one side of a very long and complex debate. Don’t just assume that your side is self-evidently true. A lot of people see individuals as part of a larger society, with “the whole more than the sum of its parts.” In fact, traditional conservative thought and Christian thought looked at society that way, and a lot of political philosophy (including both the left and right in much of Europe) see the state as a tool of the people to do things like make sure the unfortunate are cared for. So, no, I’m not making a mistake, I’m just looking at it differently than you do.

  3. #3 by renaissanceguy on January 5, 2011 - 01:13

    Scott, it’s not that complex. Social and political scientists love to make simple matters “complex” in order to foster a particular agenda.

    A state is not a person. It does not think on its own, it has no consciosness, it has no sinlge will. For the state to act, at least one person has to have control and has to exert that control on others.

    It is, therefore, illogical to say that the state takes a certain action. What really happens is that a king or president or congress or parliament or court taks a certain action. In some cases that action will represent the wishes of the majority. In some cases, not. In some cases, the majority will be a very slim majority, which means that half of the people are using the power of the state to impose their will on the other half.


    As for rationing care and waiting lists, my personal experience tells me that at least in Great Britain and Canada that is a problem. My British friends who suffer from balance disorders, and I have met about 30 such people online, wait months to see a specialist, if their GP will even give them a referral. Some of them give up and pay huge fees out of their own pockets. A Canadian friend’s father flew to Germany to start cancer treatments, because his oncologist told him that every day counted. After intense negotiations with government officials, he agreed to come back to Canada and they agreed to let him continue the treatment immediately–instead of paying his expenses to get it done in Germany. (I know that Canada is not in Europe, but it might as well be.)


    As for the appeasement meme, I would say it was fostered by the countries who are appeasing their enemies.


    You wrote, “. . .”there is a broad concensus. . .that modern industrialized states should guarantee the basics. . .”

    That is the first instance in which you treat the state as a person. The state cannot guarantee anything. Government leaders can try to do so, but the state has no power in and of itself to do such a thing. I think it is important for people to understand what is really happening to them. Government leaders are confiscating their wealth and then redistributing it as they see fit. The state is not a benevolent benefactor with a magic money machine that can grant everyone’s fondest wish.

    So far, there has been no proof that providing the services you mentioned has ended poverty. If so, then the programs should be able to be phased out by now, since their ought not to be any poor people anymore.

    You said that retirement pensions are a reward. Hardly. If a person has paid his hard-earned money to the government for 40 years or more, then that person should expect to get that portion back which was promised to him. He or she earned the money; nobody is giving him or her a “reward.” In fact, that same money invested well would have earned the person a whole lot more than the stingy government pittance he or she will receive.

    Here you are looking at the state as some sort of slavemaster. Work nicely for the state, like a good little slave, and the state will reward you with a monthly check that hardly covers your living expenses.


    You wrote, “The French have done this in part by giving very generous protections for new mothers.”

    The first glaring obscenity is that any government would think that it has the power to oversee family planning in any way, shape, or form. It’s not the state’s business how many children have or how many they do not have.

    The second less glaring obscenity is the idea that “the French” have done something en masse. No, the government of France has done so, probably to the chagrin of at least a few businessmen.

    You mentioned that mothers in the U. S. can only dream of such benefits. The government’s role should not be to fulfill people’s dreams. People should do that themselves.

    I think women should choose what they want to do, and then do it. If they want to be mothers, then they should dedicate themselves to the task of raising their babies. They should not use the power of the government–the guys with the guns and the prisons–to extract exorbitant demands from employers. A person who owns a business needs workers to produce goods and provide services. He or she is not a babysitter or a benevolent grandfather or grandmother. A person should either commit to a job or not.

    My wife stayed home with our babies. After a few months, she worked part time, and we paid for child care. When they all were in school, she went to work full time. We never expected her employers to pay her bills for her or to inconvenience themselves for decisions that she and I made.


    You wrote, “Fear of Sharia is a red herring, designed to appeal to the emotions of those who want to see Islam as some kind of dangerous enemy.”

    Actually I think that what people want is for Muslims to stop blowing up buildings and subway stations. I think they want an end to the violence. I for one really, really want to be able to see Islam as a force for good and not for evil in the world. But I want to see it in action and not in words alone.

    Here again, you are treating soemthing, a religion, as though it is a person. Nobody sees Islam as an enemy. They see many followers of Islam, as they themselves declare, as enemies.

    You wrote, “For all the stories of some radical knocking off a Dutch film maker or groups in London selling violently extremists tracts, . .”

    To tell you the truth, I find i a bit sickening that you and others do not think that “knocking off a Dutch film maker” matters and that it should just be dismissed. I find it frustrating that you think people are paranoid when real people are really getting killed.

    You admit that there are forces that want to radicalize Muslim youth in Europe, but you fail to identify who those forces are. They’re not little old ladies in Minnesota, are they?

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on January 5, 2011 - 02:29

    A state doesn’t have to be a person in order to act. Just as human cells together make a body, individual humans can make a society or a government. They can also make corporations. These can be studied at the level of analysis of the state, or the individual, or the whole system (e.g., the international system). Of course it’s made up of individual humans. Of course individual humans are made up of cells. Cells are made up of atoms. You can reduce down to sub-atomic particles, but you can study at various levels of analysis.

    I agree the British system is pretty bad. That’s one reason I oppose single payer. The German and French systems do pretty well though.

    I understand your political views about social welfare and pensions. If Europeans view these and the state differently than you do, and vote in parties that reflect their views, that is their right, is it not? Moreover, business in France and Germany has always been behind most of the programs due to the fact it brings labor peace and improves social stability. Again, you’re stating your political beliefs as if they were moral truths. I find that there are different perspectives, and often cultures have broad shared understandings that they turn into policy. To be sure, the French also give mothers benefits in order to promote more women choosing to have children. Fertility rates are 2.0 in France, having risen since these measures were put into affect. This has helped the demographic situation in France. Also, the individualism of US culture is relatively rare world wide, some cultures are very collectivist in orientation (especially in Asia). Perhaps your view is colored by your culture, what seems natural and right to you comes from your upbringing, not even deep self-evident truth. Consider that, at least.

    Who said knocking off a Dutch film maker doesn’t matter? Timothy McVeigh knocked off over a hundred people and a bunch of kids at a day care center. As you point out, these are acts by individuals. McVeigh claimed to be libertarian, but arguably acted against libertarian principles. Every Muslim I know argues that terrorists do that to, and terrorists are such a miniscule percentage of the Islamic community that to at all suggest “Muslims” writ large are a problem is simply wrong. Overall, almost all Muslims in Europe are peaceful and trying to work and make a living. After all, by your own logic collectivizing them and making it seem like “Islam” is a problem is wrong. Followers of Islam are almost all peaceful. To take a tiny few and then paint others with a broad stroke is by your own logic an error. After all, with 20 million Muslims in Europe, how many “buildings and subway stations” have been blown up? Do the math. Figure out the percentage. Muslims aren’t doing those things hardly at all. Now, think of it from a different perspective, like people looking at what Christians have been doing in Iraq and Aghanistan! Again, change your perspective, and things can be seen differently.

    Bottom line: I respect your political beliefs/ought statements about what people should be doing. But unless you want to claim infallibility, you also need to respect the right of Europeans and even Americans to have different points of view and construct political systems reflecting that. What the Europeans are doing seems to be working pretty well for them in most countries. Ireland and Iceland suffered a lot from too much financial de-regulation. Germany’s economy has been doing better than ours.

  5. #5 by renaissanceguy on January 7, 2011 - 02:48

    Scott, I don’t discount that the state exists. I just think that people lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people whenever the impersonal word “state” enters the discussion.

    My cells generally do not act independent from “me.” If I rob a bank, it’s not because some of my cells decide to rob it against the wishes of other cells. I do not think that your analogy applies to our discussion.

    Thank you for admitting, again, that the British health insurance system is bad.

    Yes, I respect the right of other people to have other views. Why would you assume otherwise? I also reserve the right for myself to criticize those views.

    I think that some of my political views are moral truths and that some of them are based on moral truths. For example, most people think it would be wrong for you to hold a gun to my head and demand that I give you money. However, you do not think it is wrong to use the power of the government to do the same thing. It is incongruous, but people accept it because (1) they see it as the “state” or the “government” doing it rather than people doing it and (2) somehow they do not see their property and their wealth as belonging to them.

    I believe in Natural Law, and so, no, I do not believe that it is only my culture and my upbringing that determine what I believe is right and wrong.

    I do not brand “islam” as the enemy or “all Muslims,” either. However, I call a spade, a spade. It is radical Muslims who have committed many of the terrorist acts that have occurred in the last half-century. I will repeat that saying that bombings and other terrorist attacks are rare, does not mean that they are good.

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