Transatlantic Mysteries

By Daniel Akst
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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)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2009/08/transatlantic-mysteries/23340/