Petr Mach: American liberals admire Europe for its lack of freedom

www.OpenDemocracy.net, 25.02.2005

published: 25.02.2005, read: 5256×


American liberal thinkers ("liberal" in the American sense of the word), such as Jeremy Rifkin, admire European society for its support of Kyoto agreements, its love of high taxes, its determination to push through the International Criminal Court, and its passion for subsidising "alternative" sources of energy.

American liberal intellectuals often consider Europe a sort of liberal paradise, or at least a model of what other societies might become. They eulogise Europe as a socialist sister of the conservative America.

But do you really believe, Mr. Rifkin, that the policies of European governments fairly reflect the wishes of ordinary people? The wishes of ordinary Europeans are very similar to those of ordinary Americans. Everybody wants to pay lower taxes and to be subject to fewer regulations. But European governments do not enact their citizens’ will. There is less freedom in Europe than in the United States – and ordinary Europeans are not happy about it!

You may object that, like America, European countries are democracies, and that government policy always reflects the attitudes of the public. In fact, ordinary Europeans have less influence on government policies than ordinary Americans exercise on theirs. Come to think of it, maybe that is precisely what many American intellectuals admire about Europe!

European governments influence public opinion with state-run television, and use taxpayers’ money to influence the outcome of elections. Most national legislation is decreed by the European Union bureaucracy, instead of being subject to the votes of democratically elected parliaments. In short, the admired European "welfare state" relies on government interference with media and a stronger role for bureaucracy in the legislative process.

As an American, you may find these assertions exaggerated. So let me explain in more detail.

On television: European governments run the major national media. The main TV stations are owned by the state ("public service" or "public law" broadcasting in European newspeak). The European model is supported by a lobby of left-wing intellectuals on the boards of these stations. Imagine a public TV channel in America, financed by taxpayers’ money, in which people like Michael Moore have the main say; if the average American watched such a channel for one hour a day, maybe then Americans would favour high taxes, the Kyoto protocol, the International Criminal Court, and oppose the Iraq war as well.

European intellectuals make self-interested claims that their television must not be privatised and that fair competition must not be allowed. Without public broadcasting, they say, people would watch tabloid news, biased commentaries, and silly "commercial" and "American" movies. You may wish that America had such a powerful public TV channel. Your opinion might then be more influential, but undoubtedly at the expense of American freedom.

On elections: European governments influence elections by campaigning for their own parties. When France held a referendum on whether to keep the franc or replace it with the euro, both the French government and the European Commission spent public money to persuade voters to choose the new currency; opponents of the euro had to rely on limited private funds only. When the European Union wanted to enlarge eastward – to

try to create a "counterbalance" to America, to spread its European "welfare model", and to prevent "harmful" tax competition and "social dumping" – the applicant states held national referenda on EU membership. Governments spent huge sums of taxpayers’ money on campaigns in favour of joining, and used public as well as private television stations to convince voters to vote "yes". Would you wish to limit democracy in this way in an effort to make the United States closer to the European model?

On parliaments and laws: The parliaments of European states work differently from the American Congress, where legislation requires majority support. In Europe, most legislation, from environment regulations to tax rates, is passed in the form of "directives"; that is, decrees issued by the institutions of the European Union. These directives prevail over national legislation, so voting on them in national parliaments is just a formality. Moreover, a country whose parliament fails to pass a directive is likely to face a cut in the subsidies redistributed to it by Brussels, the capital of European bureaucracy.

If European countries implement the Kyoto protocol, for instance, it is not because their voters are wiser; it is because they are not consulted. Would you wish the Kyoto accords or high taxes to be legislated in this way in America, too – without the consent of Congress or the state assemblies? American laws would then be more like European ones, but this would certainly be at the expense of American democracy.

In short, the "European model" that European socialist politicians proclaim and liberal Americans admire is not necessarily a model appreciated by ordinary Europeans.

What you admire about Europe are policies influenced by intellectuals and bureaucrats rather than ordinary citizens. As a consequence, what you admire about Europe is its lack of freedom.

Petr Mach

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