Monday, May 4, 2009

Is It Possible to Blend the European Welfare System and the U.S. Frontier Spirit?

If you ever wonder why Europeans do things differently, without necessarily rushing to judgement over either the Europeans or the Americans, you ought to read Russel Shorto's essay in this past Sunday's New York Times' Sunday Magazine (May 3rd). The subtitle is "How I Learned to Love the European Welfare State" but it's not a simplistic love. He takes a balanced approach in this little masterpiece of cross-cultural analysis.

'So where does this get us? If the collectivist Dutch social system arises from the waters of Dutch history, how applicable is it to American society, which was shaped by the wagon train and the endless frontier? And why would a nation raised on “You can go your own way” and “Be all that you can be” even want to go Dutch?

To the first point, there are notable similarities between the two countries. The Dutch approach to social welfare grew out of its blend of a private-enterprise tradition and a deep religious tradition. The ways in which the United States seeks to fix its social system surely stem from its own strong tradition of religious values, and also from a desire to blend those values with its commitment to private enterprise. And while I certainly wouldn’t wish the whole Dutch system on the United States, I think it’s worth pondering how the best bits might fit. One pretty good reason is this: The Dutch seem to be happier than we are.'
If you replace the Netherlands with Sweden, the story is equally true. Try that on these two paragraphs:
'Then, too, one downside of a collectivist society, of which the Dutch themselves complain, is that people tend to become slaves to consensus and conformity. I asked a management consultant and a longtime American expat, Buford Alexander, former director of McKinsey & Company in the Netherlands, for his thoughts on this. “If you tell a Dutch person you’re going to raise his taxes by 500 euros and that it will go to help the poor, he’ll say O.K.,” he said. “But if you say he’s going to get a 500-euro tax cut, with the idea that he will give it to the poor, he won’t do it. The Dutch don’t do such things on their own. They believe they should be handled by the system. To an American, that’s a lack of individual initiative.”

Another corollary of collectivist thinking is a cultural tendency not to stand out or excel. “Just be normal” is a national saying, and in an earlier era children were taught, in effect, that “if you were born a dime, you’ll never be a quarter” — the very antithesis of the American ideal of upward mobility. There seem to be fewer risk-takers here. Those who do go out on a limb or otherwise follow their own internal music — the architect Rem Koolhaas, say, or Vincent Van Gogh — tend to leave.'
Hans Sandberg

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