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April 10, 2007

Why Are We Here?

A commenter takes issue with Jonah's historical contention that Americans reject generous social welfare states because we're a country comprised of refugees from monarchies who hate expansive safety nets:

Does this kid know ANYTHING about American immigration patterns?

I find it especially laughable to think the potato famine Irish immigrants were fleeing a welfare state to which so many of their brethren gleefully submitted their fealty. Yeah, that's EXACTLY why starving Irish came to America--they took offense at the too-generous welfare policies of the English!

Likewise, I'm rolling at the suggestion that millions of African Americans chose America over Europe and Africa because they didn't want to be mollycoddled by a state that invested in their welfare.

And let's not forget the Eastern Europeans who flooded in during the late 1800's and early 1900's, terrified that they would be forced to live under the generous welfare policies of nations like Poland and tsarist Russia.

God, what an idiot. Yeah, that's the defining historical difference between Europe and the US--generous welfare states.

April 10, 2007 | Permalink


No, no, this is the real Genius thing of Right Wing Wankery. If you assume your premise, everything flows from it.
The meme "Active Government=Welfare State" and "Welfare State is UnAmerican" has served them spendidly. A sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Posted by: MR. Bill | Apr 10, 2007 1:59:53 PM

Well, Mexico is moving towards universal healthcare. I guess when they achieve that the hoards of migrants will start flowing the other way, right?

Posted by: Chris | Apr 10, 2007 2:14:28 PM

Silliness. Jonah didn't imply the things being railed against here. He doesn't imply that everyone who has come here or stayed here is a refugee from the welfare state. In fact, there must be some reason that Americans are less open to the welfare state than most Europeans, and the facts he actually refers to are probably relevant to that.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 10, 2007 2:20:25 PM

Yes of course. The Monarchies of Europe existed by virtue of the slavish submission of their subjects who never rebelled in any way. That's why these Monarchies exist to this very day. It's also why we Americans reject the decadent Welfare States of Europe and Canada in favor of our own ruggedly individualistic Social Safety net.

Glad we got that settled.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 10, 2007 2:37:59 PM

Hey you guys like to shoot fish in a barrel. Here is my contribution for your pleasure.

Another gem from Jonah Lucianne on the Corner today.

Me: Yup: The American revolution was a radical event. Today's conservatives are defenders of that radical tradition. Not every conservative is right simply because he or she is labeled a "conservative." It all depends on what you want to conserve. Conservatives in Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia are not American-style conservatives and should not be confused as such. Modern conservatism isn't merely classical liberalism, but if you take the classical liberalism out of American conservatism, it isn't American conservative anymore and I for one would stop calling myself a conservative if that were to happen.

Posted by: gregor | Apr 10, 2007 2:52:56 PM

WBR, there are important differences in the ways thrones have been treated here and in Europe. Your exaggeration of what's being said doesn't address that point. Jonah's right that there are important cultural differences, and there are good reasons to associate them with our differing histories with regard to democracy and central government. Where do you think they come from?

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 10, 2007 3:04:50 PM

Because the French are so slavish to their monarchy.

Posted by: James F. Elliott | Apr 10, 2007 3:17:40 PM

Cute, but dumb: Jonah did not contend that people historically immigrated to the US to escape welfare states. (I'm not a fan of Jonah's, btw.)

Posted by: ostap | Apr 10, 2007 3:20:02 PM

Up until the Socialist / Labor parties were permitted to hold power in Europe in the early twentieth century, America had arguably a LARGER welfare state, not a smaller one than much of Europe.

England, for instance, did not have a comprehensive educational system until 1880 (and then only compulsory from ages 5-10). You had to pay at least some fees for even elementary English education up until 1929. In America, the free elementary school movement started in 1830s/1840s and free high school was common by 1900 or so, decades before England. There were fees being charged for lycee education in France (lycee=high school) until the 1940s. Without graduating from lycee, attending university was nearly impossible - even though university fees were either zero or effectively so.

And, while much of education often remained religiously controlled in Europe until the end of the nineteenth century, America's public educational system was, at least theoretically, both free and open to all faiths, for example.

Nineteenth-century Russia had very little of a welfare state at all, for another example.

Particularly considering where the nineteenth century immigrants came from: Southern Italy, Ireland, Central and Eastern Europe, Sweden, etc. (i.e. the very poorest and most backward parts of Europe of the time) the welfare state in the major cities of the US were likely considerably superior to those areas that they came from. Free, public-supported libraries, schools, museums, health departments, parks, fire/police and safety were all comparatively much more common in urban America than they were in those parts of Europe they had come from.

Posted by: burritoboy | Apr 10, 2007 3:27:31 PM

Well, we do know that Americans don't like welfare states as much as Europeans. I can think of several reasons:

1) Americans are more selfish than Europeans
2) Americans are more ignorant than Europeans
3) Americans are more misled by the influence of corporations and the issue

These are "liberal" reasons. I can't actually think of a charitible liberal reason for rejecting the welfare state. Here are some "conservative" reasons.

1) Americans are descended from hard working immigrants, and we expect to succeed based on our own hard work, not government benefits.
2) Americans have a more diverse society, and people do not trust other groups. Welfare states only work when you trust that everyone on the safety net is doing their darndest to get off the safety net.
3) Americans like cowboy capitalism, and we suspect that welfare states erode competitiveness
4) Americans like family values, and welfare states replace family with government
5) Yes, some Americans really are refugees from failed socialist utopias.

I actually think the "conservative" explanations are more compelling.

Posted by: Justin | Apr 10, 2007 3:30:35 PM

Jonah's right that there are important cultural differences, and there are good reasons to associate them with our differing histories with regard to democracy and central government. Where do you think they come from?

Don't be ridiculous Sanpete. Goldberg wasn't making a general point, he was asserting a specific causal relationship. If you want to argue a larger point it is up to you to make the case for it.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 10, 2007 3:33:20 PM

I think the dilemma for Americans is that we have a nation, in a broad sense, of people who believe that hard work and perserverence will get you at least what you need, if not all you want. If we have a hard time acknowledging that such expectations may not be realistic for everyone, I'm not sure I buy that it means necessarily we are so averse to the notion of helping out those who cannot help themselves that we don't like the idea of wlefare programs or safety nets. The European tradition of expansive social welfare may have to do with differences that stem from the Industrial Revolution and from their transition from Monarchies and feudal states to other forms of government, as opposed to us, where a new form of governance was cut from whole cloth, one which has proved surprisingly supple and adaptable. I'm not sure that makes Jonah right, though, because I think - and it's certainly what makes me a Democrat - that Americans are comfortable with building out our social safety nets/welfare programs; just that we've really not challenged ourselves to try. That is, our willingness to try new things can't really be measured by a purely historical analysis... or perhaps it can, and Jonah just doesn't like the fact that trying new things, balanced with a healthy conservatism, is the real American story - and that things llike UHC constitute trying something we have not yet tried.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 10, 2007 3:37:49 PM

At issue here is not whether there are tangible differences that make the United States less able to adopt a European-style welfare state. At issue is why Jonah Goldberg makes such stupid arguments.

Everyone here, conservative and liberal, is coming up with better points and better explanations. None of you are getting paid to do it. So why does Jonah get paid for it and get a position at the National Review to give us his (and I use this term loosely) "thoughts" on the matter?

Posted by: Tyro | Apr 10, 2007 3:45:31 PM

I don't know that you can say that "trying new things, balanced with a healthy conservatism, is the real American story." It seems to me that radicalism and upheaval have an equal, if not greater, place.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 10, 2007 3:50:25 PM

I don't know that you can say that "trying new things, balanced with a healthy conservatism, is the real American story."

It's the conservative story, not the American story. That's where they trip themselves up. The United States didn't "try out this new locomotive thingamajig." America built a transcontinental railroad. America didn't say, "yeah, let's try throwing a few things into space." America landed a man on the moon (The Onion's book "Our Dumb Century" summed up the reaction to this). Similarly, the US participated in other "radical" projects, like universal access to phone systems and a national highway system which suddenly made it easy to speed from one city to the next (at least until congestion seems to have turned that dream into something somewhat nightmarish).

The "real American story" involves a bunch of audacious initiatives that the rest of the world ends up stunned by. That "rugged individual" on his ranch who MIGHT be willing to "try new things, balanced with a healthy conservative" is only on that ranch because the United States pursued a seemingly absurd policy of expanding all the way to the pacific coast since it was the country's supposed "manifest destiny." So, yes, I acknowledge the "real conservative story" as existing, but I don't confuse it with the "real American story."

Posted by: Tyro | Apr 10, 2007 4:01:47 PM

1) Americans are descended from hard working immigrants, and we expect to succeed based on our own hard work, not government benefits.

2) Americans have a more diverse society, and people do not trust other groups. Welfare states only work when you trust that everyone on the safety net is doing their darndest to get off the safety net.

3) Americans like cowboy capitalism, and we suspect that welfare states erode competitiveness

4) Americans like family values, and welfare states replace family with government

5) Yes, some Americans really are refugees from failed socialist utopias.

Most of these are mythic cliches rather than reasons. For that matter, so are the ones labeled liberal.

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 10, 2007 4:09:09 PM

Those are good points, Justin.

WBR, Jonah was both making a general point and giving a partial causal explanation, obviously not one intended to be taken as total, as he gives two different points (royalist culture, people coming here because they prefer our values), neither of which he claims to be "the" explanation, nor the two of them together. In regard to Denmark and France, their steps away from monarchy have been very different from ours, and not as irrevocable from the start. I don't see the problem with what he actually said.

At issue is why Jonah Goldberg makes such stupid arguments.

No, at issue is whether he actually does. Much of the time, the arguments singled out here aren't stupid, and the reactions to them show more about the commenters than Jonah.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 10, 2007 4:16:35 PM

My guess is that Americans simply like different kinds of welfare states. Something like the Pentagon, that spends vast amounts on weapons and systems that are not only unusable, but - when we are attacked, such as on 9/11 - proved to be actually counterproductive, is popular because peepod from warmongering columnists to IBM software guys working out DoD contracts are paid right well, and intend to keep it that way. The vast water engineering projects in the U.S. dwarf anything done in socialist Europe - save Holland. The U.S. spends much more on education, when you add in state and local levels - Germany and France don't have anything to compare to our Jr. colleges and state colleges, etc. When you look at outlays of public money in the U.S., and you count fairly - because much of the welfare expenditure in this country is done through the states - I don't think it radically differs from Europe. The U.S. does have an uncommon tolerance for rentseeking, whether it is defense or pill industries. I would imagine our legislative/federal system is set up in such a way as to make corporate rentseeking easier, hence the U.S. pattern. It isn't simply some big accident that small government legislators are elected, they leave behind tremendous deficits - it is part of the American structure, our rentseeking dna. It is expensive to put the wealthist on the dole.

Posted by: roger | Apr 10, 2007 4:27:15 PM

I'm not sure there's a vast differnce between "audacious initiatives," "Radicalism and upheaval," and "trying new things." I certainly meant to imply both of the former in my latter remark. I think all three are balanced by a cautiousness within our culture that reigns us in, sometimes rightly, sometimes not so rightly; and I think liberals are better served acknowledging that than fighting it all the time. Per Justin, I don't know that "Americans don't like welfare states as much as Europeans." I suspect that Americans don't like as much welfare state as Europeans seem to be in favor of (though I think their love of welfare state programs isn't all its made out to be, either, but that's another disucssion)... but I do think Americans are comfortable with the sense that there needs to be a safety net and some basics need to be provided by the state when there's no other way. I think that's a problem - and Jonah, to his credit, gets this to some extent - for conservatives because I think they have a hard time balancing Americans' comfort with welfare state programs with their opposition, at base, to the whole notion. All of that stuff about "cowboy capitalism and "by your bootstraps" is certainly part of the American approach (I'm less convinced that the "family values"/government values dilemma is quite what conservatives crank it up to be), but tied to it is a fundamental compassion - call it Christian Charity, as conservatives do, if you like, but still - that supports the notion of helping the less fortunate, and using government as a mechanism for that end.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 10, 2007 4:30:57 PM

Jonah argued that the reason Europeans have universal healthcare and the Americans don't is because the French and Danish are government "suck-ups" and Americans are independent. The suggestion he made is that when the US was founded, we kicked out all the suckups. So they stayed in Europe and Canada, which became nations of suckups while the US remained a nation of independents. That suggestion is, frankly, ridiculous.

Ezra took this down by pointing out that most Americans were more happy with "big government" healthcare than free market healthcare.

I took it down by pointing out that the American side of Jonah's equation didn't seem to include any American history since 1790. I did that by pointing out he didn't seem to understand why huge groups of Americans came here in the first place. It didn't have jack-all to do with sucking up vs. not sucking up: it was about more basic things like eating. The US had a rapidly expanding economy and were for decades literally giving away land. Nobody in Europe was doing that. And, of course, Jonah was overlooking the experience of millions of Americans who didn't choose to come here, and who found our government exceptionally repressive and controlling.

In addition, I might have added that he blew the European half of the equation as well. There were far more committed government-haters throughout Europe than there were in the US: Socialism was developed in Europe. Anti-monarchist Marxism came from Europe. France had a revolution in which they killed the king. For goodness' sake, Spain had entire regions run by anarchists.

Throughout the 1800's and clean up to WWII, there weren't just revolutionary doctrines being developed throughout Europe. There were also massive political upheavals in Europe. People of all social classes were organizing and rebelling against various forms of government--often violently--and trying to install others. Even a cursory glance at European history shows that people were overwhelmingly not passively "sucking up" to monarchists and "big government." For God's sake, 1848 is popularly referred to as "the Year of Revolution."

There are undoubtedly reasons for the different political outcomes in Europe, and about the tolerance of centralized government, etc. However, the suggestion that it's because the Europeans are historically government "suckups" while Americans are a culture of independents is self-evidently fatuous, insulting to the writer and to the audience alike.

And burritoboy's point is well worth noting, and dovetails nicely with Ezra's point that in healthcare, Americans overwhelmingly prefer more "social welfare" approaches over free market ones. At recent points in history, America has been more accepting of many social welfare policies than Europe has. This suggests that the reasons the US and Europe are diverging now are less due to fundamental differences explained by mythic cliches like "Americans are independent, Europeans are suckups" or "we believe in succeeding from hard work, not suckling at the government teat," but much more proximate reasons, like after WWII we had enough economic growth that companies could buy health insurance, while Europe could only afford it when it was provided by the state. And now we aren't going to a universal system because rich, entrenched healthcare special interests are spending a lot of money to keep that from happening.

We're being sold a bill of goods that our differing healthcare systems prove that Europeans are from Mars, & Americans are from Venus. Therefore, universal healthcare would be somehow un-American and either fail, or (even worse) undermine our fundamental American-ness and lead to the collapse of our nation.

This is ridiculous, and I would laugh at it except for the fact that people are dying and we're wasting billions while the so-called intelligensia use sixth-grade American history and chauvinism to argue that our nation will collapse if we institute a sensible healthcare policy.

Posted by: anonymous | Apr 10, 2007 4:31:14 PM

I don't understand Justin's point. If group G is opposed to idea I, then it's hardly surprising that the reasons pro-I people advance to explain that opposition are less flattering to G than the reasons anti-I people give are.

Posted by: KCinDC | Apr 10, 2007 4:35:41 PM


I could think of several reasons why there is a weak welfare state in the United States:

(1) Race
(2) A political system that is biased towards the status quo.
(3) Weak labor unions.

The conservative arguments you cite have some validity. However, it's arguable that American's political beliefs are shaped by the factors I mentioned above ("endogenous" is the word academics use). For example, weak labor unions are part of the reason why social solidarity is so weak. Likewise, the fact that minorities are disproportionately poor may be part of the reason that so many Americans believe the poor are unworthy and cheating the system.

Posted by: Peter H | Apr 10, 2007 4:51:21 PM

"Comprised of"

One of my many usage peeves. "Composed of" please, or just "made up of."

Posted by: Antid Oto | Apr 10, 2007 4:56:22 PM

(1) Race
(2) A political system that is biased towards the status quo.
(3) Weak labor unions.

I think #2 is a superb explanation. I should have thought of that. I would like to think that #1 is really about culture (my point #2), but I'm not sure that all my fellow conservatives would agree.

Posted by: Justin | Apr 10, 2007 5:02:02 PM

Americans hate the Welfare State so much that they immediately jumped on the Bush bandwagon in the hopes of privatizing Social Security as quickly as possible.

Peter H. does a nice job of cogently summing up why the US has not been as hospitable to a comprehensive welfare state as Europe. I think the race aspect cannot be overemphasized. It has been one of the great weapons for reactionaries over the years -- the use of the undeserving "other" as the reason that a comprehensive social welfare system is a bad idea. It's the "those people just don't want to work phenomenon."

I think the political system is also a good point. In a parliamentary system it is much easier to ram home large scale reforms in the wake of electoral victory. Here it is almost impossible absent landslide election wins like 1932, 1936, and 1964. The Senate is typically a killing ground for ambitious legislation. The House has frequently been dominated by right wing southern chairman over the years as well.

Finally, the system also stifles to some degree innovation by the states in this regard. There is the constant fear of losing businesses to more retrograde jurisdictions when a state imposes progressive mandates. Hence the flight of much industry over the years to low wage, so-called "right to work" states, where taxes are minimal and unions are weak.

The irony is that for progressives it probably would have been better to have lost the Civil War (for the slaves, not so much). A country that consisted of the northeast, industrial midwest and the west coast would probably have a much more European style of governance. And yes, I view that as a good thing.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Apr 10, 2007 5:10:14 PM

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