Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future
By Samuel Gregg
(Encounter Books, 363 pages, $25.99)
“Europe” is a concept Europeans are still getting used to. It should not, therefore, be surprising that it took a book written primarily for Americans to determine the sort of morass into which Western European social democracies have stepped.
In his new book, Becoming Europe, Samuel Gregg provides a detailed dissection of Europe’s economic climate and the culture that has created it. The analysis offers few surprises for anyone who has followed European news closely for the last five or so years: European governments, entitlements, and spending are out of control, and politicians cannot create the political will to do anything substantial about it. Here the topic is systematically demonstrated with facts and figures in a manner that is never boring and often insightful.
Gregg, research manager at the Acton Institute (and frequent Spectator contributor), has spent a good deal of time working and studying on both sides of the pond. He also knows his way around an economics text, which makes one think he should have known better than to set such a monumental task for himself. We must start, then, by saluting him for his courage and pluck; comparing and contrasting the economic cultures of two continents is fraught with dangers.
First, there’s the problem of defining methodology and terms. Gregg handles these with precision and self-awareness. In the case of culture, despite it being “untidy,” “usually in a state of flux,” and not easily lent to “certain types of scholarly analysis,” it is nevertheless real and capable of having “immense implications for economic life.” Gregg then centers on the role culture has in forming “the intentions, principles, ideas, and beliefs to which a given society ascribes high value.” He continues in this way defining other key terms all the way up to “European Social Model” and a word unlikely to be in most people’s lexicon—dirigisme. The result provides a powerful toolkit for his analysis.
That analysis leads to the second danger of cultural comparison: generalization. Yet despite his sweeping topic, Gregg exerts an admirable amount of self-control. He focuses on ideas rather than individual figures, and explores how those ideas emerge in the priorities of European and American culture. This helps him avoid dwelling on political personalities. It also allows him to use history analytically. It is not history for its own sake—figures like Napoleon, Stalin, and Franco aren’t even in the index—but rather an attempt to explain the development of European institutions and the culture that envelops them. This simplification is understandable, as the alternative would inevitably make Edward Gibbon look brief.
Gregg’s approach avoids muddle and distraction, and embodies in many ways the Tocquevillian characterization he cites of the American sailor: “He sets sail while the storm rages; by night as well as by day he spreads his full canvas to the wind… and when at last he comes to the end of his voyage, he continues to make for the coast at full speed as if he already has his port in sight.”
The embattled PIIGS—Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain, the countries whose budgetary woes are the most infamous—might protest that Gregg’s analysis demonstrates a lack of sensitivity toward their history and situation, but Gregg turns out to be quite egalitarian in his criticism of the continent. He shows this by citing Czech President Vaclav Klaus’ opinion:
“It seems that Europeans are not interested in capitalism and free markets and do not understand that their current behavior undermines the very institutions that made their past success possible.”
Gregg is able to characterize the issues facing Europe as one of scale, rather than one with specific winners and losers, by focusing on its cultural aspects. Even if more market-oriented countries like Germany succeed, European integration forces them to foot the bill for the rest of the Union, perhaps indefinitely.
All of this means European society is headed for some stark upheavals if the current arrangement remains in place. Given its demographic time bomb, upheaval could come sooner rather than later, though Gregg is insistent that what Europe’s young prize above all is getting the same deal cut to their parents and grandparents. This is a problem upon which Gregg places great emphasis, citing it as a root and cause of Europe’s other problems. When other peoples’ children are paying for one’s pension, there is little need to go to the expense of having one’s own!
When comparing this situation to the U.S, Gregg tends to show how a given trend in Europe (like cushy social spending) is becoming similarly entrenched here. The difference again is one of degree—America still has a more market-oriented cultural awareness. He, however, demonstrates ominously that confidence in the free market has taken a serious hit among average Americans after the 2008 Credit Crunch. It ultimately is a question of valuing economic “security” over economic freedom. We have ample evidence of what that looks like already in the EU.
The book is divided into three parts, with an extensive introduction. Readers looking for the sections focusing on America, including how American economic values are beginning to resemble European ones and how America can avoid resembling Europe further, need only read the introduction and Part III, “The Choice.” Gregg is particularly eloquent when laying out the principles and priorities Americans need to espouse to maintain a pro-market, pro-growth future built around “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He names these essential values as wealth creation rather than wealth redistribution, transparency, a comprehensible rule of law, a strict defense of property rights, and finally openness to the outside world.
Gregg’s vision in Part III articulates an alternative to Big Government that has both weight and attraction. It is ultimately holistic: “The exercise of freedom—including economic freedom—is where much of the happiness-making occurs,” he writes. “The downside may be less economic security. But while some economic security is important, it is not all important. Nor is it enough for human happiness.”
It may surprise some, particularly European, readers that Gregg offers no specific advice concerning what Europe itself can now do to reverse course. His target audience seems quite specifically the “New World.” This kind of fatalism is, however, quite Olde Worlde in character, and Europe’s true conservatives will relish it in the manner they have since time immemorial. Europe has been in trouble a long time, after all.