It really vexes me to no end when European criticize America, not just on specific policy points, but the system as a whole. To that, I have two words: social engineering.
First of all, every society engages in some level of social engineering. The most intrusive ones, are, for example, China when it forces its one-child policy on its population. On a lesser intrusive level, you get economic incentives to act in ways considered favourable, mostly through taxes. To that end, most countries have “sin” taxes on undesirable and unhealthy goods to discourage consumption and high health-care costs associated with them; tax breaks when it comes to owning houses, to encourage home ownership and social stability; tax breaks when it comes to education and charitable givings, etc.
Europe is really the reigning champion when it comes to the number of hands visibly rearranging chess pieces in the economy. But the results are so pleasing and low-profile, that many come to confuse those “virtuous” behaviours as somewhat voluntary, compared to what they really are, products of social engineering.
In essence, America is the land of idealism. That is, politicians are prevented from intervening in people’s everyday lives, and uses persuasion and decentralized mechanisms to encourage more “favourable” behaviour. In recent years, more and more people are beginning to realize the lacklustre effects of such policy. That is, majority of people are still struggling with over-consumption and stressed out.
Then you go to, say, northern Europe.
Wow, what a difference half a day on the plane makes! People are slim and attractive, the streets are clean and crime-free, the culture worships work-life balance. You check Wiki and see those countries topping almost all quality-of-life indexes, with low unemployment and almost zero poverty rates. The locals are eager to tout their life in pursuit of “happiness”, and a life of low materialism.
You nod your head when they tell you they believe in free education, free healthcare, high social mobility, a sense of community where everyone cares for everyone else, not to mention protecting the environment because they care so deeply for the future of humanity. And if freedom and such humane ideals demand a price, then high taxes, so be it! Their deliveries so eloquent, aspirations so worthwhile, and humanities so evolved that you are almost moved to tears, when not hurriedly scribbling them down in a notepad to recite to your friends back home.
For a moment there, you are almost convinced that they got it right, and the rest of the world more closely aligned to the American system have everything backwards. But I dare to say that almost all those supposedly “evolved” behaviours come from a state cynical of its own people on whether they are able to make better choices.
From what I see in Europe, consumption choices are heavily influenced and affected by what the government deems desirable or not. They are practice to some extent in North America too, sure, but Europe does it to the nth degree, including and not limited to: heavy food taxes on some while subsidies on others to “guide” the way people eat (thus slimmer and healthier people), heavy vehicle and fuel surcharges to push out more “environmentally friendly” cars regardless of their long-term environmental impact (thus most drive much smaller cars), prohibitively expensive parking fees are used to encourage alternative transportation methods (more use public transportation and bicycles).
Those are the policies that have turned out well – there’s a whole list of them that didn’t, but that’s for another day. The point here is that very few people truly had the choice to behave “good” out of their own volition, many had a lot of outside “help”.
So many of those supposedly successful Nordic countries find it easy to criticize other that chose a different path than them over the past three decades – namely those that embraced trade, privatization and allowed to invisible hands of the market to take control. There are certain policy failures. Heck, there are many policy failures in those places.
End of the day, it comes down to this. It’s very easy to see a homeless person, or the victim of a violent crime in America and proselytize: your bad social policies led to this. But it is much more difficult for an American to point to a European and say: look at the loss in human potential as a result of your social engineering.