States of Mind: A Reply to Daniel Akst

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Dan Akst wonders:

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.

I've often asked myself about this. For example, I studied in Germany in the late 1960s and had to register with the police like all other residents, including the Heidelberg students who had finished one of the most tumultuous years in the university's history by the time I arrived there in 1968. Yet questioning such police powers were not on even the student radicals' agenda.

Part of the answer might have been Lenin's famous remark that if German communists ever stormed the railroad stations, they would buy platform tickets first. But there's another explanation. The leftist critics of the European state have not wanted to demolish it but to retain its machinery for their own uses once they achieved power. 

Another part is that while rich Europeans pay higher taxes than the US wealthy, that includes the right to use state services to the fullest, and not just in health care. No New York City private-school admissions neurosis (or $450/hour consultants), no private university tuition financing headaches. And the ineffable joy, unknown to our Interstates, of watching slower cars deferentially slink into the right-hand lane as your fast Audi overtakes them on the Autobahn at 200 km/hour (I've had a taste of this as a passenger -- with a State car and driver). You've paid your annual tax bill for that big engine and your heavy fuel tax. Enjoy!

On the other hand, most Americans didn't share Dwight Eisenhower's alarm about the Military- Industrial Complex, and the armed forces and military contracts have a much bigger role here than there. To Europeans, American aerospace giants are at least as State- subsidized as their own Airbus. Yes, we kept Western Europe under our nuclear and conventional umbrella during the Cold War. It's the "horrific history" of two wars and interwar militarism that Dan mentions that made outsourcing part of defense to the our State look like a good deal. Even Sept. 11 hardly changed this attitude; I remember arriving for a conference in Ulm on one of the first flights back, virtually silent on board, but there seemed no concern there, even though it was already known that terrorist cells in Germany were behind the attacks. Meanwhile, polls reveal that many Americans support the State's right to torture and condone maltreatment of other prisoners. "Paranoia toward the government?" Au contraire.

Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush talked about reducing government's role but changed little. And the American multi-tiered Federal - State - County - Local jurisdictions, with their frequent conflicts and correspondingly greater role for larger numbers of lawyers, means a greater rather than a small government presence. Wall Street in the bailout age has been clinging to the State for dear life, not to mention bonuses. (A deal's a deal, right?)


(Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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