Transatlantic Mysteries

More
2696819435_c7230416e7_m.jpg

Yesterday my friend Chris and I drove into the Alps from Vienna, and during the trip I asked him a question that's been puzzling me. Why, given their horrific history during the 20th century, aren't Europeans more wary of the power of the state? After the horrors of WW I, the rise of European fascism, the Nazis, the Second World War, the protracted disaster of Communism etc., it would seem to me that something like paranoia would be the mildest sensible response toward government.

Yet instead people chose to give the state pretty much complete power over education (including universities), broadcasting, health care and pensions. The government mostly controls the economy as well, taking and disbursing about half of GDP. Even speech is more regulated (try denying the Holocaust in public).

The only conclusion I can draw is that people were very willing here to trade freedom for security (isn't that what got them into so much trouble in the first place? but never mind). And so far, it doesn't seem a bad trade; I doubt most European voters would even understand what I'm talking about, and would insist that they are the ones who are free (from destitution, for example). The state seems benign, if (to an outsider) pervasive.

I am willing to acknowledge that for the great mass of people this might well be the best way to organize the world, yet I wonder if Americans could ever be happy with the feeling of such limited possibilities. As to my original question, the Anglo-Israeli historian Avner Offer suggests an interesting answer in his paper Why Has the Public Sector Grown So Large?

His argument is essentially that sophisticated voters know they can't use their own money as advantageously as the government can; taxing themselves in exchange for social benefits is a kind of commitment device against their own profligacy and myopia. Even in America, after all, the public sector eats up a third of GDP without even counting a lot of health care spending. And the voters strongly support Social Security, a classic public-sector commitment device.

(Photo: Flickr User aficio2008)
Jump to comments
Presented by

Daniel Akst

Dan Akst is a journalist, essayist and novelist who wrote three books. His novel, The Webster Chronicle, is based on the lives of Cotton and Increase Mather. More

Dan Akst is a journalist, novelist and essayist whose work has appeared frequently in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Wilson Quarterly, and many other publications.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

When Will Robots Take Over the World?

"In a sense, we're already becoming cyborgs."


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Video

The Origins of Bungee Jumping

"We had this old potato sack and I filled it up with rocks and dropped it over the side. It just hit the water, split, dropping all the stones. And that was our test."

Video

Is Trading Stocks for Suckers?

If you think you’re smarter than the stock market, you’re probably either cheating or wrong

Video

I Spent Half My Life Making a Video Game

How a childhood hobby became a labor of love

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In