October 12, 2007
A theory on America vs. Europe
You may be familiar with the idea that the social welfare in many European countries seems substantially more citizen-friendly than in America. If you're ever on Reddit, you've been inundated with it. This is true in many ways, as workers in many European countries receive a guaranteed 5-6 weeks of vacation, 35 hour workweeks, and guaranteed paid parenting leave. Additionally, it is more difficult to fire workers for the most part. Benefits for American workers are much less on average, but vary greatly by company. What is definitely true, though, is that European governments take a much more hands-on approach than the American government in this area.
The main difference is that Europeans, on the whole, have created a huge safety net for their populations, preventing them from working too much or being exploited. In contrast, America leaves it up to free-market forces to decide what benefits will be offered. The idea is that if the benefits aren't good enough, workers will go elsewhere and competition will find the "correct" (from the market's perspective) level of benefits. In short, when it comes to worker benefits, the U.S. trusts the cold rationality of economics far more than Europe seems to.
This level of social welfare in Europe is commonly seen as a progressive or liberal idea, whereas the American laissez-faire policy is somehow considered "conservative." I'd say they seem to be exactly the opposite. An elaborate safety net and required long-term expenses for each employee seems to me to be a greater attempt at maintaining the status quo and slowing change. Additionally, it seems much less optimistic in regards to the ability of workers to find and hold good jobs.
I mention this because I have a theory about some differences between America and Europe. America has almost always been on the cutting edge of just about everything. It had the first modern democratic constitution which its writers called "a grand experiment." The U.S. has led the world economically for the past fifty to a hundred years. The technology revolution of the last couple decades has largely been centered in the U.S. In short, Americans it seems have often been more willing to experiment and try new things. I don't think it's necessarily a disdain for the current system, just a curiosity and optimism about what's next. You could chalk this up to America's youth as a nation. European states had existed for centuries before the U.S. was born. I have a different idea.
The first Europeans to come to America were vikings (sorry Columbus) who were sailing in search of new lands. They wanted to see what was out there beyond Europe. A few hundred years later, European explorers began to arrive. These people, again, wanted to see what existed beyond the horizon. The first settlers were people trying to start over, to fashion a new life in the new world. They ignored the risks inherent in sailing across the Atlantic on leaky ships. Immigrants since America was formed have largely been people taking a gamble and searching for a better life. The common thread has been the disregard for risk.
I wonder if part of the reason that America has largely embraced economic and technological change more so than its European counterparts is because of this risk-taking that characterized people that come to America. I wonder if this propensity has been passed down to each successive generation, be it through genetics or through social institutions and attitudes. The people that stayed in Europe were the people that were happy with or unwilling to change from their status quo.
Out of this more conservative mindset has evolved the social safety net of contemporary Europe. On the other hand, America's more mobile workforce is a result of an embracing of change and an optimism about the unknown.