Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, made a presentation of his book “Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future” on Feb. 7 at the Heritage Foundation. He sounded a warning of trends that may be leading the United States toward a financial mess of the magnitude of the ones that are plaguing Europe and Japan. In reference to Sunday’s Academy Awards, in the spirit of the day, we can say: “Lights! Camera! Acton!”
Gregg covered three overriding points in a logical order. First, he explained the implications for the United States if it follows the pattern established by Europe. Second, he laid out the trends that indicate this is exactly what is happening. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Gregg asserted that there are steps the United States can take to avoid such a result, but these involve a transformation in American civic and political attitudes.
A recent speech by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron on the United Kingdom’s future relationship to the European Union provided an illustration of what could be in store. Gregg called this “yet another missed opportunity to address unequivocally” layered challenges of dealing with the “superstate” status Germany has acquired, with the prevailing conviction across Europe that the state is the instrument for meeting the obligations of everyday life, compounded by the tendency of even conservative parties to adopt social democratic policies favoring continued expansion of the welfare state.
In discussing the underlying trends behind the concentration of state power, Gregg lamented that the culture of “statism” has become so entrenched that appeals to cut the size and influence of government no longer resonate. For example, Scotland is dominated by two social democratic parties. He cited an observation by French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville that politics reflects the majority sentiment, for better or worse. Tocqueville’s work was directed at a European audience, and he told them about a spirit of “free association” that informed American economic behavior.
However, Gregg found that polls in the European Union show support for free enterprise in the low-double digits and in the United States in the mid-double digits but declining, so that even the business community has come to prefer corporate welfare over competition as a behavioral model.
Switching analogies in recognition of the Daytona 500 that was run on Sunday, I observed that the last part of Gregg’s argument encountered some turbulence that caused him to take a wrong turn into the infield.
Gregg listed two things that are needed to turn the U.S. economy around. First is to make clear that the American people are dissatisfied with the present course, and second, that the public is willing to embrace needed change.
Gregg lamented that for Americans, participatory democracy has come to mean “voting for whoever will give us the most stuff.” However, he pronounced himself as an optimist who, citing economist Douglas North, believes that Americans can achieve a “transformation” through the assertion of basic American values, arguing further for a “values-based policy” that could give America a chance to avoid Europeanization.
Gregg came oh-so-close to getting this one right when he acknowledged that advocates of expansive government have an advantage in articulating what President George H.W. Bush called “the vision thing.” In my view, he swerved off course when he allowed his personal optimism to take over and missed the turn that Tocqueville had plotted so clearly. Tocqueville predicted that once Americans realized that a majority could use its power to extract ever more from government, Democracy in America would resolve itself into a “tyranny of the majority” (President George W. Bush would pronounce it “tie-ranny.”)
The race between Gregg and Reality was a close one, but he ultimately dropped off the pace. Perhaps he can make the needed adjustments before he writes another book, but if an author is an inveterate optimist, the odds are that he will never overcome his basic nature and bring the power of his underlying analysis to bear on the question of whether there is any way America can grab the last exit on the Road to Serfdom, so well-paved by the Europeans, where there is no posted speed limit.
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