Should the United States Be More Like Europe?

Europe has always been a dirty word among conservatives, but it's become a scandalous term in the GOP presidential contest. Are Americans so sure that we've built a stronger society?

Europe has always been a dirty word among conservatives, but it's become a scandalous term in the GOP presidential contest. Are Americans so sure that we've built a stronger society?


Last week, Nicholas Kristof asked why Europe is a dirty word. The Republican primaries are dialing up the rhetoric accusing Obama of turning the United States into Europe. Yet, as many observers of foreign affairs (along with vacationing tourists) have often noted, Europe is hardly the undesirable place that such accusations imply. Kristof cited a few figures to make his case.

In fact, many European countries outperform the United States on a wide range of measures. The tables below show a miscellaneous set of metrics intended to round out a notion of national greatness. There are figures representing the economy (GDP in nominal dollars and purchase price parity), health (life expectancy and maternal mortality), education (PISA math score), subjective well-being (as measured by the World Values Survey), inequality (Gini score), past achievement (Fortune 500 companies, medals from the 2008/2010 Olympics, Nobel Prizes), future orientation (carbon emissions), and generosity (official development assistance to foreign countries).

So as to make comparisons meaningful, national aggregates are divided by population and shown on a per-capita basis. For most categories, a higher number would generally be considered better. The exceptions are inequality and carbon emissions, for which the opposite is true.

Figures are shown for the United States, the three largest economies in Europe (Germany, France, and the United Kingdom), and the three Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark). Pay attention to the red numbers: They represent where a country outperforms the United States.


Several facts immediately pop out. First, there are a lot of red numbers, and they range across the different categories. Any perception that these European countries lag behind the United States is hard to support. Far from it, they are doing better in many ways. The United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries, in particular, outperform America on almost all of the metrics shown here.

Second, there are no categories in which the United States is the undisputed leader. Perhaps not surprisingly, we do relatively well in per capita GDP (PPP) and the proportion of Fortune 500 companies. Even there, we have competition from Norway, France, and the U.K. Third, the Scandinavian countries score consistently high across the board, except in the number of Fortune 500 companies.

Other statistics show similar trends, which raises several questions for public dialogue and policy. For example, China is justifiably viewed as the imminent rival to America's superpower status, based on growing economic and military power. But this rivalry is largely in terms of hard power and absolute, aggregate size. Why don't we pay more attention to other forms of greatness? And, why, if we're as individualistic as supposed, don't we emphasize comparisons on per-capita terms?

Much of the European advantage comes from a greater emphasis on equality of capability, in the sense proposed by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. For example, they place more weight on equal access to healthcare and education. Europeans don't have the kneejerk antipathy to democratic socialism that Americans do, despite having had in their backyards frightening regimes that gave socialism a terrible name.

Of course, none of this necessarily says that Scandinavia and Europe are superior to the United States in some larger sense. America is a bigger and more diverse country with research universities that are still the envy of the world. Our arms are open to immigration in a way that is unequaled. Such traits make us more dynamic, but our lack of focus on eliminating poverty - whatever its cause - weighs us down on many fronts. In any case, these comparative metrics should give politicians and journalists pause when they blithely criticize the United States for emulating Europe.