The monsters who eat escargot


ONE OF THE iron laws of U.S. history is that there always has to be a foreign boogeyman that conservatives can hold up to demonstrate the dangers of domestic liberalism. When progressive Californians tried to implement a sweeping healthcare reform in 1917, a conservative group attacked it as “a dangerous device invented in Germany announced by the German emperor from the throne the same year he started plotting and preparing to conquer the world.” First you’re offering universal health insurance, and next thing you know you’re invading France.

For many decades thereafter, the Soviet Union served admirably as foreign boogeyman, serving to warn us of the dangers of anything from Social Security to progressive taxation. Since the Cold War ended, this role has fallen upon Western Europe in general and France in particular. For a few years now, conservatives have been throwing Europe’s slow economic growth in the face of American liberals. The recent riots in Paris have naturally offered them an irresistible opportunity.

The Cato Institute’s Michael Tanner recently articulated this taunt in the conservative Washington Times. “There are important lessons for U.S. policymakers” from the riots, he wrote. “American liberals often look fondly to the European welfare state as a model for U.S. social policy.” First you’re opposing President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, and next thing you know you’re invading Fran ... er, I meant to say, you are France.

The funny thing is that when Europe is doing well, conservatives tend to uphold it as a vindication of their own policies. Fifteen years ago, Germany was an economic powerhouse, and righties routinely claimed this was because of its low capital gains taxes. (After the 1990 upper-bracket tax hike, a National Review editorial sulked: “The dollar has sunk to new lows against the German mark.... It seems that capital is flowing out of the United States to nations where ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ has lost its allure.”)

And when Russia imposed a flat tax, conservatives responded in the rapturous tones of a 1930s fellow traveler recounting Stalin’s worker’s paradise. Heritage Foundation scholar and flat-tax buff Daniel Mitchell wrote, “Russia’s flat tax already beats America’s punitive redistribution-oriented tax code hands down.” Conservative columnist Deroy Murdock noted how “ex-Communist states confidently reject progressive taxation” and lamented, “Too bad this isn’t Russia.” Need I point out that Russia is a bleak hellhole of corruption, decay and political repression, and a far less pleasant place to live than France?


Instead of just ridiculing the conservative argument, let’s take it seriously for a moment. Near as I can tell, they seem to be saying this: Liberals want bigger government. Europe has bigger government. Bad things are happening to Europe. Q.E.D.

Do conservatives have even a germ of a point here? No. It’s true that liberals admire some things that Europe does, and it’s also true that Europe has some highly destructive policies. But there’s almost no overlap between the two. By almost all accounts, the single most damaging aspect of European and French policy is the absurdly restrictive rules on firing employees, which discourage businesses from hiring anybody and result in high unemployment.

I’ve never, ever heard an American liberal call for emulating French labor regulations. You do, on the other hand, hear liberals praising France’s effective public transportation and, above all, its healthcare system. Tanner’s column doesn’t try to cite France’s advanced rapid transit as a cause of social decay, but it does mention its “universal national healthcare system.”

This is particularly laughable. France’s healthcare system does cover everybody, has far more doctors per capita than the U.S. and produces better health outcomes. Is this lavish socialist system bankrupting the country? Far from it. France spends about 10% of its national income on healthcare, as opposed to 15% in the U.S. In fact, we’re the country being bankrupted by its healthcare system, which is by far the most market-intensive in the advanced world. Skyrocketing healthcare costs are discouraging job growth and strangling the automobile industry, among others.

Maybe we should address that problem, and maybe we shouldn’t. (I subscribe to the former view.) Either way, we shouldn’t be held back by the fear that reform will lead to marauding Islamic youth taking over our streets.