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Don’t Look to Europe for Answers


LONDON—When the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the cause of liberty nearly a quarter of a millennia ago, many of them expected independence from Britain would set America on a different course from Europe’s. People, goods, and ideas would still cross the Atlantic, and they hoped the Declaration would legitimate their cause in Europe and prompt France to enter the war—but they expected the old and new worlds to pursue their own destinies.

The Founders doubtlessly would be surprised that their descendants’ political imaginations have been captured by Europe: For some time, the American left has compared their homeland unfavorably with various countries across the pond, and an increasingly vocal part of the American right has joined them. A recent trip to Paris and London reveals this is unwise.

To a certain extent, this mistake is the result of basic category errors. Every year, social scientists comb through data sets and announce that a handful of small, monoethnic states dominate various indices of economic and social wellbeing. Then the refrain starts up that the United States—the third-largest and third-most-populous country on the planet, with the biggest economy—should model itself after countries that are, in many cases, smaller than New York City and barely more diverse than Vermont.

Until recently, tiny-state envy was mostly observed on the American left, but the right has had its own outbreak of the Hungarian variety. Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, has succeeded in drawing international attention, but as his post-October 7 trade deal with Iran and eager embrace of Chinese investment and security forces reveal, Hungary is not on the right track. The country’s population, which is about the size of Chicago’s, is shrinking because talented young Hungarians know the future is brighter elsewhere.

The Founders were well acquainted with the small European states of their time, and they realized those states were poor models for the United States: Even when the country was overwhelmingly peopled by Anglo Protestants, Georgia could not be governed the same way as Massachusetts. During the debates preceding the Constitution’s ratification, the Federalists had to convince their countrymen that the United States was not already too large and diverse to hang together. Their solution, federalism, has made the Union both flexible and durable, and most European countries have nothing like it.

As the recent elections reveal, the bigger countries in Europe are not looking so good either. Both Democrats and Republicans have grown enamored with big-government economics, such as France’s dirigisme, as of late. But Paris’s regulation-heavy protectionism does not produce the dynamism needed for the French economy, which grew less than 1 percent last year and will do so again in 2024. To underline the problem, Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded France’s credit rating yet again.

The situation in Great Britain is not much better. In March, the government proudly announced it is now halfway to net zero emissions. This did not satisfy the climate extremists who recently tried to destroy the Magna Carta—which until the attack was displayed in the British Library near an exhibit that asks, “What would you protest?”—or the voters who seem to care more about the shrinking economy than carbon cuts. Britain was in recession the second half of 2023, and since the pandemic its economy has grown much slower than the United States’ or the Eurozone’s. The trains don’t run on time, the hospitals are overwhelmed, and double-digit inflation has created a “cost of living crisis.”

British and French voters are kicking out the incumbents, but the replacements are not likely to make things better. Both the far-right party that took the lead in the first round of France’s legislative election and the left-wing coalition that came in second place want to double down on dirigisme. They also cheered on the 9/11 attacks and flirt with forming strategic partnerships with Russia. Britain’s Labour Party has just won a stonking majority after 14 years in opposition, but a preelection poll found only 37 percent of Britons thought Labour’s promises were “good for Britain.”

Both Britain and France are struggling with large welfare states, aging populations, slow economic growth, and small militaries that predominate across Europe. With the largest war in Europe since World War II still raging, now is not a good time for two of Europe’s leading states to have major crises. But the institutions and arrangements that make Europe so attractive to the American left are also making reform difficult.

Many of these ideas do not work well in Europe. The United States has plenty of its own troubles—it does not need to bring in more.

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