Debunking the American Left’s Biggest Myths About Europe

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Remember when Sen. Bernie Sanders pointed to Europe as the solution for America’s problems?

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway,” Sanders, I-Vt., said during a 2016 presidential debate, “and learn what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He’s not alone.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said, “What we have in mind and what my policies most closely resemble are what we see in the U.K., Norway, in Finland, in Sweden.”

These self-proclaimed socialists profess that a European model is superior to the United States. It isn’t.

David Harsanyi, a senior writer at National Review and columnist for The Daily Signal, is the author of a new book, “Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failed Ideas of a Dying Continent.” Harsanyi debunks the American left’s myths about Europe and explains why we shouldn’t look across the Atlantic to solve our problems.

Listen to our interview on “The Daily Signal Podcast” or read a lightly edited transcript below.

Rob Bluey: We are doing this interview in the aftermath of the U.N. Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. Of course, this took place on European soil. And so much of what you write about in the book seems to have played out before our eyes over the past couple of weeks. Why does the American left embrace Europe with such fanfare?

David Harsanyi: The broad answer is that many Europhiles—what I call them here in the United States—are technocrats in essence and they like to be able to compel people to do things that they believe are moral or right. And they’re turned off by the messiness and dynamism, and frankly, the meritocratic aspects of American life.

To them, it looks like anarchy and they simply don’t like it. They don’t like the inequality. They don’t like the way technology goes. They don’t like the growth that happens without any sort of government control. And they don’t like the low taxation and the regulatory burdens and things like that.

So they look to Europe because Europe does all those things.

Bluey: President [Joe] Biden, when he was at this summit, seemed to restart President [Barack] Obama’s apology tour. He told the Europeans and the world that he was sorry that the United States left the Paris climate agreement during the Trump administration. Why do you think the American presidents feel this need to apologize to our European allies?

Harsanyi: I think there’s a certain kind of politician who went to a certain kind of university and has a certain kind of ideological outlook that believes Europeans are more sophisticated than we are in that we should try to be more like them. Barack Obama was a big example of that. Joe Biden is probably less so, but he, of course, just says whatever he thinks he’s supposed to say. He’s quite cynical about these things.

Barack Obama is a good example of a Europhile. I think he just believed that Europe was doing a better job of controlling its citizenry in a top-down, centralized way that the European Union does. And that again, they just think that that’s a better system and they’d like to implement that here.

Bluey: In the book, you go chapter by chapter to debunk some of the most popular myths about Europe and also make the case that the United States is superior on a range of measures. And I’d like to go through some of those. Now, let’s start with the Nordic countries because that’s where you often see American socialists or those on the left point to first. What do you want people to know about nations like Denmark, Sweden, and Norway that they might not hear from the media?

Harsanyi: I suppose the first thing actually is the myth that they are socialistic countries to begin with. They’re not, they are quite capitalistic. In fact, The Heritage Foundation ranks Denmark No. 8 or something like that in economic freedom. They have quite robust trade, open trade, free trade, and not a very high regulatory burden in some ways.

They just use the money to prop up huge welfare states and that is the problem. And people like [Sen.] Bernie Sanders, who praise those nations, they don’t want to implement or maybe they do, but they don’t advocate for implementing the same kind of taxation that’s necessary to have that kind of state, which would never scale to this country.

You’re talking about 57%, 60% tax rates right off the bat, without even talking about consumption taxes and other taxes. You’re talking about a heavily taxed middle class and even the poor pay taxes. So the whole country is dependent on government. It’s a very different system than they portray here. I guess that’s the first thing I’d say.

The second thing I’d say is that they don’t really do things better than us, so I’m not sure why we’d want to scale that kind of system. They don’t assimilate people better. Their health care is not really better in any quantifiable way that matters. And so, I’m not even sure why we’d want it. Their growth is slower, etc.

Bluey: It seems that on issue after issue you have the same theme. The United States is vastly superior to Europe in so many of these areas. Health care is an example of where the right and the left in America have significantly different ideas. Yet, the left frequently points to Europe as a model. But you say the facts don’t back up their arguments. How so?

Harsanyi: I should preface this by saying, of course, that European health care is quite good. It’s not as if we’re talking about a Third World nation here, or whatever the politically correct term for that kind of nation is. Europe has good health care and many European nations have different kinds of health care systems

The British, for instance, have almost a completely socialized system, which is why they have lots of medical tourists coming here to get operations because there’s long waits for simple operations, long waits for drugs, fewer kinds of pharmaceuticals available to people, etc. In the United States, we don’t have that.

I would just give two quick statistics. The big argument here is life expectancy and mortality of babies. Both of those are misleading.

The life expectancy here is shorter than most European countries, but not by large amount, but it is because of our lifestyle choices. For instance, we drive more. So we have many more vehicular deaths than they do in Europe. That doesn’t say anything about how we deliver health care. That says something about how we live and maybe we’re not as healthy or, as you know, we’re prone to put ourselves in situations that aren’t as safe.

And as far as childbirth goes, in the United States and in many European countries, we simply measure these things differently. We are far more inclined to try to save every baby’s life, no matter how premature. And these statistics, they skew the statistics as sort of view of life. And in reality, the health care system is not, in those ways that most liberals usually bring up, we are not worse than Europe.

Bluey: You also mentioned assimilation. Immigration is a challenging issue confronting both the United States and Europe. Yet, you argue that it’s America and not Europe that’s actually the more welcoming society. What did you discover when you were doing your research on this?

Harsanyi: We are the most accepting and tolerant country in human history. I just don’t even understand how anyone can deny that.

European nations have trouble assimilating even single minorities. They always have. They have trouble just living with borders next to each other. And we see that now.

Now, I think that we have some assimilation problems typically because of illegal immigration, not because of legal immigration. But Europe has massive generational problems with immigration.

They have near, say Paris or Berlin or other places in Germany, there are basically ghettos, compartmentalized areas where generational unemployment inhibits assimilation—where there’s poverty, where people don’t accept, most importantly, the ideals of Europe, though I’m not sure they know what those are anymore, that allow people to assimilate and live together. And then you have Islamic enclaves where people have illiberal ideas about the world.

These are problems we don’t actually experience very much because we’re good at assimilating people. It’s not to say that we’re perfect or that everyone here is welcoming of new people all the time.

But as society, just living in the D.C. area, I live near people from all over the world who sometimes would be killing each other in other circumstances. And here they send their kids to the same schools. That is a miracle. Well, not a miracle, but it’s the only time that’s ever really happened at large scale in human history. It happens here every day.

Bluey: It certainly does. And as somebody whose great-grandparents assimilated here in the early 1900s, my family’s living proof of that, as are so many other millions of Americans. It’s one of the characteristics that we need to embrace as a country.

Harsanyi: My own parents came here and they were Jewish. They went to neighborhoods near Germans just 20 years after the Holocaust and they lived here peacefully. And again, sent their kids to the same school, open businesses together, etc.

Bluey: You also cover the issue of antisemitism, which is a problem across the globe, but particularly in Europe.

Harsanyi: There’s rampant antisemitism. Now, it’s difficult to deal with these kind of topics in the sense that a lot of times incidents, for instance, of racial crimes or hate crimes, are self-reported or the polling is about how people feel. Now, that matters, don’t get me wrong.

I think that we’re accustomed to such high levels of integration here that we are more sensitive to that sort of thing than Europeans. But when you look at France, every year there is some horrific act of antisemitism there. And that’s not even counting the everyday incidents that go on.

A few years ago, the French had to deploy the army to protect Jewish cemeteries and neighborhoods. A lot of this has to do with immigration from people from the Middle East, but it also has to do with ethno-nationalistic growth in certain places as well.

There’s a lot of antisemitism in Europe and sometimes in countries where there are hardly any Jews even left, but it’s just in nearly every country and it runs very deep.

Bluey: David, I look around the pews at my church on Sunday and see people mostly older than me. There are a handful of families, but far fewer younger people. But as problematic as this is for the United States, it’s even worse in Europe, according to your book. Why are Europeans rejecting religion and what does it mean for their culture, where it was once so integral?

Harsanyi: We are on the same trajectory. It’s not as bad here. And some European countries are better than others so it’s not all the same, but almost everything I write about ties into this in some sense.

I think the idea that something is bigger than you is quite important in believing in liberalism and in rights which Europeans have abandoned. But it’s also, as you said, foundational to the ideas of liberalism and what made Europe great at one point or many of the ideas that made Europe great that I think we adopted.

When you don’t have those things, when you don’t have that moral structure, your hierarchy of values change. And I think you start turning to government and the state to fill that void. And I think that’s what progressives do with climate change and so on.

In Europe, it’s been happening for a long time where people turn to fascism or communism. And now this giant bureaucratic state gives them their rights or tells them how to live. And so that’s no way to have a continent.

No one’s ever picked up a musket to defend the European Union, nor will they ever do that. You need something to believe in and I think that there’s a crisis of faith in Europe because of a lack of religion.

Bluey: I’m glad you brought up the European Union. Five years ago, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and since then the U.K. has taken a decidedly conservative turn, cheered on by many Americans, including my colleagues at The Heritage Foundation. What did Brexit say about the EU and how has it damaged the idea of this European superstate?

Harsanyi: Frankly, historically speaking, the British were always a tough fit for the EU. The people there are not built for it really. They never accepted the currency. Even when Winston Churchill spoke about one day having a super European state, he didn’t even include the British in that equation. They’re too capitalistic and the closest to American.

I’m a bit of an Anglophile myself, but I just think that they’re the closest we have for very obvious reasons. Most of our best ideas come from them.

Others may follow, but it’s a little tougher because a lot of these other countries, say Hungary or smaller countries, economically benefit, though they don’t benefit culturally from being a part of that.

Obviously, I was writing a book called “Eurotrash,” so I was very happy Brexit happened, but I don’t know what that means for the future. Because Germany runs the European Union and I think many of the other bigger nations benefit from it for different reasons because it creates this market for them. And many of the smaller nations will have a hard time leaving because they’re just not economically strong enough.

I guess my answer would be I’m not sure.

Bluey: Here in the United States, we just had major elections in a couple of states. Virginia, obviously shifting dramatically in a different direction from the trajectory it was on. And a lot of that is animated by what we call culture wars. Issues like critical race theory or debates over transgender issues. What is it like in Europe right now on some of these issues? Are they confronting some of the same culture war issues that we are in the United States?

Harsanyi: Actually, I would say that the woke culture stuff is much more a problem here than Europe, frankly. I think like the French reject that sort of thing generally.

You did mention before how the British had gone conservative or conservatives had won, but I would just push back on that in general in Europe. I just don’t feel like there’s an actual ideological right-left fight. It’s typically about how you want to use the state. The classical liberalism that sort of undergirds, I guess, a lot of small government conservatism in this country … has an ideological component about individual rights and shrinking the state and things like that.

In Europe, it’s mostly just center, left-center debates about how statism should be used, and I think that’s the case in general. So you don’t get a lot of culture war stuff.

I’ll give you an example. Abortion laws in Europe are generally more restrictive than here in the United States. And I think that manifests that way because there is no right-wing social conservative force in Europe really pushing back to radicalize the left. They don’t need to be that way because there are no real social conservatives because there’s no real clericalism or church pushing back in any real way against the these issues.

So I think the dynamic’s very different than here, as far as that sort of culture war stuff goes. It does exist to some extent, I think, but just not in the same way it does here.

Bluey: We’ve talked a lot about the left’s embrace of Europe, but I’d remiss if I weren’t going to ask you about some on the right who appear enthralled with Hungary and its leader, Viktor Orban. What’s your take?

Harsanyi: I’m quite sympathetic to the problems identified by someone like Orban: the mass immigration, especially in a small country—I think there’s 9 million people in Hungary; the loss of faith; the lack of births; things of that nature. I am not sympathetic to many of his not just illiberal policies as far as press goes and things of that nature, but just in general.

I think people overrate Hungary. I think they overrate the solutions that Hungary has come up with. People still leave that country. Maybe last year or the year before there was a slight turn in that.

But a lot of these conservatives go to Hungary, sit in a cafe in Budapest overlooking the Danube, take a little walk, and they think that’s what Hungarian life is about. But for most people it’s not.

When you look, for instance, at per capita income, I think they’re $10,000 per capita below someone in Mississippi, the average person in Mississippi. So that to me is not something I would be trying to copy.

Bluey: We’ve covered so many issues already, but I know you have a lot more in the book. Again, it’s called “Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failed Ideas of a Dying Continent.” Are there any other issues that you think that our listeners should know about when it comes to Europe?

Harsanyi: I think that the scariest thing to me, as far as what we are doing that they do that’s wrong, is copying their giant bureaucracy. I mean, bureaucracies run countries in Europe, not people. And that happens here. You think about the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and what they were doing during COVID or even think about the State Department and what they were doing during the presidency of Donald Trump.

When you have bureaucracies that are so powerful and large, they in essence start to govern rather than people who are elected and rather than the Constitution. So that is a dangerous thing that we should think about as we expand the welfare state and other government entities in Washington.

Bluey: That’s a fair point. I’m glad you mentioned COVID. And of late, you’ve seen the Biden administration take authoritarian action in terms of its COVID-19 vaccine mandate. Where do you see this ultimately ending up and are there any lessons that they’re trying to take from Europe that we should be fearful of?

Harsanyi: They’re acting as if they’re a European government that can just lay down edicts and ignore courts, or bend the meaning of courts.

Obviously, the Biden administration just simply does these things, ignores the court as long as it can, and then does some slightly different variation on the regulation to keep going. This is authoritarianism for sure, as you said.

It does not bode well for the future if they get away with it. The problem, of course, in America is that we in some way rely on the president and on Congress and following the Constitution in some sense. Because if nothing else stops them, they can just ignore the courts if they want and Biden is doing that today.

The COVID thing was very scary to me simply because so many Americans acted so docile when told what to do and governors are just shutting down churches and everyone’s like, “Oh, it’s fine.” That really scared me, but I think there’s been a turn in that and we’re acting more like Americans should act in the face of these sorts of things. So perhaps that’s a good thing in the long run.

Bluey: I’d agree with you on that. I’ve noticed that turn as well and I think we need more of it. We need more people speaking out and not just following the orders. Tell our listeners about where they can follow your work and get the book.

Harsanyi: Most of my work is at National Review, so I’m up there. You can follow me on Twitter with my other stuff too. And you can buy the book anywhere, I hope, that books are sold. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, places like that.

Bluey: Thanks again for writing it and debunking some of these myths, and warning us about what our future would look like if we head down this path. We appreciate the work you do and thanks for joining us today.

Harsanyi: And I appreciate you having me. Thank you.

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