REVIEW: 'Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failed Ideas of a Dying Continent'

November 14, 2021

Olaf Gersemann, a German journalist, 15 years ago set out to correct Europeans who believed that economic life in America was a race to the bottom. He showed that America's flexible labor markets, dynamic growth, and job creation worked at least as well as Europe's economies and welfare states. Now American writer David Harsanyi bookends that earlier project with a new text that punctures not European myths about America but the myths that some Americans hold about Europe.

America's progressive elites already have to answer for woke capitalism, contempt for flyover country, and impossible burgers. Harsanyi wants to add an item to that list: uninformed Europhilia. His Europhiles are American "politicians, academics, pundits, journalists, among others" who believe "that we should look across the Atlantic for solutions to our most pressing problems."

Harsanyi knows this is old wine in new bottles. Many American liberals and progressives have long looked to Western Europe for inspiration and solace on issues ranging from generous welfare states to low levels of gun violence, highbrow intellectualism, and general sophistication. Harsanyi makes the case in Eurotrash that these affinities are not so much misguided as just plain mistaken. The problem with Europhiles, in his view, is not their values—it's their facts.

Take the common progressive admiration for Scandinavia. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, to show that socialism works, has repeatedly named Nordic countries like Sweden, Denmark, and Finland as role models that enviably combine democracy, social equity, and prosperity. This view is largely an artifact of an era when Scandinavian socialist parties were politically dominant and ideologically self-confident. But is it accurate, at least anymore?

Harsanyi says no, and makes the case that the region has its problems, and that to address them Scandinavians in the last 20 years have been motivated to move away from Sanders-style socialism. Sweden, for example, began "cutting and simplifying its taxes, rolling back some of its welfare system, adopting voucher systems for schools, privatizing a number of state-controlled monopolies, and injecting more competition into the economy." All of that was happening even before Sweden eliminated its estate and wealth taxes (today, Norway retains the sub-region's only remaining wealth tax). Harsanyi could have told a similar story about liberalizing economic reforms in Denmark. He does describe the high income tax rates that are required to support Scandinavian welfarism, which would be politically unsustainable in the United States.

Harsanyi develops parallel takedowns of other naïve beliefs about Europe, for example, that Europeans live in more tolerant and inclusive societies, are less racist and more welcoming of immigrants, enjoy the same material standard of living as Americans, and get much better health care value for their money. To give just one example that has been discussed by others as well, Europeans have a lower infant mortality rate in no small part because they count many tiny "preemies" as not live births to begin with. In contrast, American doctors struggle to sustain many more hard-case newborns. When they fail, America's statistics look relatively worse.

Harsanyi does not stop at just goring these and other cows sacred to Europhiles. He also focuses attention on ills in Europe that Europhiles all too often ignore or downplay. These include the region's distressingly low birth rates, its disturbing erosion of free speech protections, and the creepy, Kevorkian-like zeal with which several European countries have embraced euthanasia. His list of important problems that Europhiles do not talk about could have been even longer. For instance, France's unemployment rate basically has not fallen below 7 percent—and has very often been above 9 or 10 percent—for 40 straight years, from the early 1980s until now. I feel fairly confident saying that if the United States suffered those rates for that long, hundreds of dissertations, trade books, op-eds, and idea-festival conferences would have treated it as an undeniable indictment of the American model of capitalism. Documentaries and magazine spreads would have offered up heart-breaking individual stories and demanded that attention be paid. Instead, this problem in France and several of her neighbors has attracted mind-bogglingly little attention.

So what should we learn from this? Maybe the lesson is that people on the left should not be so quick to believe stories about how the grass is greener—or browner—on the other side of the Atlantic. But people on the right are not immune to this either. Maybe Harsanyi is one of them. He insists that there are real and growing divergences between America and Europe, just ones that favor the United States. He considers birth rates, religious practice, and other trends, and in the conclusion highlights greater American belief in individual self-determination, support for free speech, and faith in God. He treats these as headspring values that have numerous beneficial downstream consequences. That sounds pretty plausible.

But the historian Peter Baldwin wants us to put it all in perspective. In The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike, he reviewed reams of data on crime, environmental quality, economic conditions, health care outcomes, and much else, and concluded that the North Atlantic is a mega-region whose members enjoy more similarities than any other large group of countries in the world. Differences across the United States, and across Europe, are as daunting as differences across the ocean. In a fragmented and dangerous world, we are still joined at the hip.

Eurotrash: Why America Must Reject the Failed Ideas of a Dying Continent
by David Harsanyi
Broadside Books, 320 pp., $28.99

Gerard Alexander is a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.

Published under: Book reviews