Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future
Encounter Books, 2013
384 pp., 25.99
Theodore Roosevelt Malloch
America presently faces a choice between a form of "cuddle capitalism"—what others consider creeping socialism, the therapeutic-nanny state—and a more dynamic market economy, rooted in liberty with limited government. The thesis of Samuel Gregg's timely book is that we are embarked down the first of these paths and that America is actually becoming more and more Europeanized—to our detriment. Gregg, the Acton Institute's director of research, analyzes this predicament through an economic lens. He is at his best exploring and refining the medium he calls "economic culture": that is, "the value commitments, attitudes, rules, and institutions that shape and characterize economic life in a given society."
Will Americans remain more individualistic than their European counterparts, or will they succumb to increased state action? Will the welfare state continue to grow at any and all cost, or will it have to be dialed back and reigned in—as a result of bloat and financial distress? Will entrepreneurship vanish in America, as it has, more or less, in Europe? And what will be the moral and political costs of what Gregg describes as "reduced freedoms"?
Gregg emphasizes the interplay in the economy between values, the institutions embodying those beliefs, and the incentive structures they create, as well as the forces they set in motion. Finding Europe's longstanding attachment to guilds and corporatist values rooted in mercantilism, he shows how the European Social Model evolved. This Keynesian model sought government management of the economy to promote full employment and "to preserve the market from its own inherent instabilities."
The result, made plain in today's European Union, has been vast bureaucracy, the end of charity, and closer political union. The founders of this economic strategy in trade liberalization always saw it that way. But with high levels of taxation and public spending have come adverse effects on growth, employment, and fiscal sustainability. For Gregg, this is a period in Europe of "golden decline." Post-democratic bureaucratic rule by élite technocrats, the clout of greedy unions, and the favoritism of the state—choosing business winners and losers—have led to economic malaise. This worship of the welfare state, Gregg argues, is a form of "soft despotism."
The "worrying parallels" that exist in America are what disturb him the most. It will take attitudinal change if we are to avoid Europe's fate. Where should we start? Gregg thinks we need to reinvigorate a "Tocquevillian" civil society that addresses problems neither markets or governments can resolve. This means, in the first instance, prioritizing wealth creation over redistribution. Such human flourishing has a distinctly moral dimension, Gregg says: "Man does not live by efficiency alone. Life is about much more than maximizing utility." But the road back from serfdom will not be easy; so many persons and groups have become dependent on the goodies dispensed by the growing welfare state we, too, have created.
Now you may be discounting much of what I've said, thinking that I am one of those Americans for whom Europe is irredeemably "other," to be regarded with suspicion if not outright disdain. On the contrary: I readily admit to being a Eurocentric Europhile. My family roots are in Scotland and Holland, and my entire education, faith, and upbringing, while quintessentially American, are also deeply rooted in the European experience.
My faith is founded in the Protestant Reformation that shook Europe 500 years ago. I spent nine formative summers teaching and touring throughout Europe while I was in graduate school and as a young professor. I still recall with wild enthusiasm my first trip to Europe with Gordon College in 1972, at age nineteen. I studied and took degrees and have lectured at many European universities. I was an exchange scholar at Kiel Universitat and was made an honorary member of the Christian Democratic Party of the Netherlands as early as 1979. I was president of the four ancient Scottish Universities Trust in the U.S. I wrote a doctoral dissertation largely about European ideas—in politics, philosophy, and economics. I spent four years in Geneva, Switzerland, in an ambassadorial post in the UN, from the late 1980s until 1992 when European history shifted and the Cold War ended. I had a front-row seat as deputy executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe. I was an executive board member of the World Economic Forum (Davos), which started as the European Management Forum for ceos. I was actually present at the Berlin Wall just days after it came down. My friends in Eastern Europe, the radical economists, all became leading figures—ministers, central bankers and prime ministers in their respective countries after the fall of the Soviet Union. I was an advisor to the Polish government during its shock therapy and privatization. I speak several European languages; regularly read European books, magazines, and newspapers; and have been a firm supporter of the so-called Atlantic Alliance my entire life. To steal a line from President Kennedy, "Ich bin Europaisch." I don't trot out this personal history to impress you but rather to underline that only with a deep sense of disappointment and true sadness have I come to agree with Gregg's assessment.
Europe is dying. Europe's churches are empty. Mass on Sunday, in gothic cathedrals, is virtually unattended. These halls of worship are not just sparsely filled—they are, except for a handful of tourists, vacant. Mass is conducted in a side chapel fit for the couple dozen worshipers, older women, who show up for it. Europe is truly adrift, evolving rapidly away from its past moorings.
There is a reason for this neglect. In his book published a few years ago, The Cube and the Cathedral, George Weigel described a European culture that has become not only increasingly secular but in many cases downright hostile to Christianity. The cathedral in his title is Notre Dame, now overshadowed in cultural importance by the Arc de la Defense, the hideous ultramodernist "cube" that dominates an office complex outside Paris.
I was surprised that in his account, Gregg did not more fully explore the deeper reasons for Europe's decline. European man has convinced himself that in order to be modern and free, he must be radically secular. "That conviction and its public consequences," Weigel writes, "are at the root of Europe's contemporary crisis of civilizational morale."
Gregg does remind us of the debate over whether Christianity should be explicitly acknowledged in the European Union's constitutional treaty. By the time the draft constitution was completed in June 2004, a grudging reference to "the cultural, religious, and humanist inheritance of Europe" had been shoehorned into the preamble's first clause. This was about as much religion as Europe could stomach in a constitution that runs some 70,000 words.
Practicing Christianity in Europe today enjoys a status not dissimilar to smoking marijuana or engaging in unorthodox sexual activities—few people mind if you do so in private, but you are expected not to talk about it much or ask others whether they do it too. Christianity is considered at best retrograde and atavistic in a self-described "progressive" society devoted to obtaining the good material life: long holidays, short work hours, and generous government benefits.
Without a religious dimension, a commitment to human freedom—in principle, vigorously proclaimed in Europe—is likely to be attenuated, too weak to make sacrifices in its name. Europe's political élites especially, but its citizens as well, believe in freedom and democracy, of course, but they are very reluctant to put the "good life" on hold and put lives on the line when freedom is in need of a champion—in the Balkans, in Darfur, or wherever ruthless terror strikes.
The good of human freedom, by European lights, must be weighed against the risk and cost of actually fighting for it. In such a world, governed by a narrow utilitarian calculus, sacrifice is rare, churches go unattended, and over time the spiritual capital that brought forth all that we know as "the West" (the politically incorrect term is "Christendom") is in danger of being lost.
As I pondered Gregg's argument, I was reminded of something Orwell wrote: "We have now sunk to a depth at which restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." It may be obvious that "culture determines civilization," but it's a truth that needs restating now. There is much more to lament than the secondary effects of a European-style decline in productivity, living standards, and art. That is, merely reviving religion as an end in itself is not what Europe needs, but rather a call back to its first love, to the God who blesses and rewards those who diligently seek him. This is the more profound lesson America must never forget.
Theodore Roosevelt Malloch is research professor at Yale University's Center for Faith & Culture and author (with Jordan D. Mamorsky) of The End of Ethics, published this year by Wiley.
Copyright © 2013 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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