The New Year always generates countless lists, predictions, and assessments of where things stand as we embark on another rotation around the sun. Many of these lists are optimistic, reassuring us that the world is not as bad as we might assume, but others, especially those predicting future trends, tend to be more cautious and somber. One recurring list I’ve seen over the years is a collection of reasons why American quality of life is so much worse than that of our neighbors across the pond. As far as I can tell, this infatuation with all things Europe is a common weakness of American liberals who delight in cherry picking the successful statist elements of Europe while conveniently ignoring the continent’s many failures. To be sure, when I look across the Atlantic, I see a lot to like and emulate. However, I also see a lot that concerns me, and I wish that the left-leaning commentariat in the U.S. would bother to learn a little bit about the continent before unequivocally singing its praises.
One particularly galling example of this total adoration of “typical European life” can be seen in Umair Haque’s What Do You Call a World That Can’t Learn From Itself? Why Don’t Americans Understand How Poor Their Lives Are? The post is predictable and predictably uninspired. Feel free to read it yourself, but the gist of it is that Europeans work fewer hours, eat freshly made (non-GMO) food, and live enlightened lives full of enriching nature documentaries and heady intellectual discussions. Americans, by contrast, rely on broken down public transit, eat tasteless and artificial food, work too long, and watch either “reality porn, decline porn, [or] police-state TV.” Haque then goes on to write about how Americans are oblivious to how bad they have it due to their obtuse self-confidence and lack of interest in the world around them. Upon reading this, I couldn’t help but think he was confusing Americans with the British and French.
Beyond several vague references to indicators such as press freedom, corruption, and lifespan, the entire diatribe struck me as quite anecdotal. Indeed, Haque seems to have some childishly naive view of Europe that one might gather after a week or so of touring around the major European capitals. But this romanticized view of life in Paris or London strikes me as not even close to representative of “European life,” however you define it. Indeed, it is quite ironic that, although Haque strongly critiques Americans’ lack of self-awareness, he seems to have no conception of how ridiculous he sounds when describing the life of a typical European.
Nowhere in his piece does he mention that France’s youth unemployment remains firmly above 20% almost a decade after the financial crisis. Nor does he acknowledge that British life expectancy is declining. He asserts that Europe is a continent of autodidacts, but I guess he’s forgotten about Greece, which has stopped dreaming. He also forgets to mention that the entire continent is aging to death, as nobody seems to want to have children. One wonders why this is the case given what a wondrous utopia Europe apparently is. Haque is also seemingly oblivious to the fact that the cost of energy tends to be higher in Europe, the quality of universities is decidedly lower in Europe, and the supposedly fantastic infrastructure and mass transit is not nearly as amazing as he purports. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that Europe is able to provide many of its fantastic public benefits due to the subsidized security provided by the United States, which allows Europe to underfund its militaries and overfund its welfare services. Interestingly, even given this implicit American subsidy, European debt to GDP ratios are not meaningfully different than that of the United States. And while many progressives love to hold Europe up as a model continent, one must not forget that Germany legalized gay marriage several years after the United States did, Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary are so anti-refugee that they make Trump seem like an advocate of open borders, and European countries have experienced many more terror attacks due in no small part to their inability to successfully integrate different ethnic and religious groups.
It’s also important to remember that many of the differences highlighted by Haque are cultural and due to path dependence. And in many cases, Haque confuses his personal preferences with the preferences of the American population. For example, there is zero evidence that GMOs have any negative health effects. And in fact, it’s more than a tad likely that EU countries peddle false anti-GMO science in order to justify non-tariff trade barriers against American agriculture and, by extension, protect European farmers from market competition. Haque may very well prefer organic food, and that is his prerogative. However, it is absolutely ludicrous for him to assert that Americans are worse off because they have the option of buying cheaper GMO produce, especially since Americans have the option of buying organic food if they so choose. Haque makes a similar error when criticizing mass-transit. The U.S. certainly lags behind Europe and Japan when it comes to public transit, but this is because American consumers prefer cars and because the creation of the interstate highway system generated a path dependency in favor of the automobile. As a frequent rider of DC public transit, I’d like to see more and better mass transit systems throughout the country, especially in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. But to say that Americans have an inferior life because they prefer to drive instead of ride is as meaningless as me saying that Europeans have worse lives because they choose to smoke in much higher numbers than Americans. It’s a personal preference, so Haque’s critiques are a bit like saying “this American has a worse life because he’s doing what he wants.”
To be completely clear, I have a lot of respect for Europe, and I think it is very obviously one of the most successful regions in the world today. I am an admirer of the German electoral system, French and British philosophy, Italian food, and the spirit behind efforts at European integration. I study Europe because I think it is great, and I am convinced that the countries of Europe have much to teach the United States. However, I’m absolutely sick of hearing how much better Europe is in all indicators. Anyone can provide sophomoric analysis that cherry picks data and fails to grapple with confounding facts, so that’s not very impressive. Indeed, I was able to write this post laundry listing all of my critiques of Europe in less than an hour. What is impressive is a piece that offers a net assessment and offers concrete ways that both the U.S. and Europe can work to improve themselves, recognizing that the U.S. and Europe are fairly different despite their many similarities. Unfortunately, utopian progressives will never do this, as they don’t care enough about Europe to offer an intellectually honest assessment. Instead, they pull out their talking points and level their indictments of the U.S., never appreciating just how good they have it.