Monday, May 09, 2005

When I wrote on European liberalism in early April, I'd originally planned to run a lengthy follow-up piece today, the 60th anniversary of V-E Day.

Alas, this post won't be all I'd wanted it to be. I simply haven't had the time, and probably won't for the foreseeable future, either. (Not, at least, until after the 60th anniversary has run its course through the daily news cycle.)

But the gist of what I'd wanted to write is this. The difference between American and European liberalism is one not of degree but direction. Europe is not more liberal than America in the sense that it's further along the same road American liberals are trying to travel; rather, it's on a completely different road altogether. European liberalism is a purely reactive force whose stimulus lay in the abyssal violence wrought by failed pre-War politics. As a result, it protects civil rights not out of idealism but out of fear, and it supports an extensive welfare state not out of compassion but a curious mixture of capitalist guilt (think colonial expansion) and, again, fear (think the rampant industrialism of Weimar Germany). By contrast, American liberalism is a proactive force derived not from a given history but a cultural obsession with self-perfection. It protects civil rights not out of a fear for the alternative but out of its own curious mixture of a relentless idealism and, no less importantly, an economic imperative to make America's internal markets as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. (This latter impetus, furthermore, is why there will never be an American welfare system rivaling those in Europe.)

In other words: to the extent that European and American liberalism bear a resemblance to one another, that similarity masks a fundamental difference of orientation. Europe's liberals move out of the past while American liberals move into the future. A trivial distinction, perhaps, but also one that's yielded significant differences between the two.

UPDATE: A friend just pointed out both that Britain's welfare reform began prior to WWI under Lloyd George and, further, that its post-War building under the Beveridge Report was more proactive in nature than reactionary. To that I plead guilty as charged. Britain's experience both before and after the two world wars was greatly different than that of continental Europe, and I should have specified that in thinking about 'European liberalism' I was thinking of continental Europe only. (For a number of reasons I have terrible tendency to unconsciously exclude Britain when thinking of Europe as a whole.) Furthermore, although my friend didn't cite this specifically, I should never have qualified 'reactive force' above with an absolute term.


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