How America and Europe Are Alike
Are Europe and the United States really as different as is commonly assumed?
- With very few exceptions, the United States fits into the European span of most quantifiable measures.
- We may conclude either that there is no coherent European identity — or, if there is one, that the United States is as much a European country as the usual candidates.
- The two societies are thought to operate on the basis of radically different patterns: competition for the U.S. vs. cooperation in the EU, individualism in the U.S. vs. solidarity in the EU, and so on.
- Whether you like or lament it, this widely nuanced pattern of sharp contrasts across the Atlantic is very familiar. But is it true?
These are among the commonly cited contrasts between the United States and Europe: America believes in the untrammeled market, while Europe accepts capitalism — but curbs its excesses.
The list goes on: Social policies either do not exist in America — or are way more miserly than in Europe. Education is socially stratified and largely privatized in America, while in Europe it is universally accessible and state-financed.
Likewise, America's lack of universal health insurance is assumed to mean that people die young and live miserably. And because the market dominates, America's environment is less cared for.
Social contrasts are also greater in the United States, and therefore crime is much more of a problem than in Europe. Meanwhile, Europeans are secular. Americans are much more likely to believe in God — and accept a role for religion in public life.
The two societies are thus thought to operate on the basis of radically different patterns: competition for the United States vs. cooperation in Europe, individualism in the United States vs. solidarity in the EU and, finally, autonomy vs. cohesion.
Better yet, some lambaste these distinctions — while others laud them. U.S. conservatives tend to evoke the virtues of American exceptionalism. To them, Americans are patriotic, hard-working and self-reliant.
Europeans, on both the left and the right, tend to criticize the U.S. penchant to diverge from what they regard as the European norm. To them, America is an anomic, sharp-elbowed, unsolidaristic society.
Whether you like or lament it, this widely nuanced pattern of sharp contrasts across the Atlantic is very familiar. But is it true?
Everyone has an opinion and everyone has a stable of anecdotes — and a few scraps of information to back that up. But what if we look at the comparable quantitative data in a systematic fashion? Does it bear out the conventional wisdom?
Not all differences can be captured by numbers, of course. But at least statistics allow us a first pass over the terrain. They give us the opportunity to compare reliably — and not merely to repeat the accepted stereotypes.
What follows is not an exercise in taking sides in this dispute. It is not an attempt to vindicate one position or the other, nor to be partisan in some sort of sociological beauty contest.
My hope is simply to have a look at the data, such as it is — and to place these various societies in as objective a relationship to each other as is possible.
Let us compare Europe and the United States in four areas: the economy, social policy, the environment — and finally the hardest of all to quantify, religion and cultural attitudes.
The evidence in each case allows two conclusions: First, Europe is not a coherent or unified continent. We will be looking at Western Europe only— that is, the EU-15 plus Switzerland, Norway and Iceland.
To also include the new arrivals would be to win the argument by default. But even within Western Europe, the spectrum of difference is much broader than is normally appreciated.
Second, with very few exceptions, the United States fits into the European span of most quantifiable measures. We may therefore conclude either that there is no coherent European identity, or — if there is one — that the United States is as much a European country as the usual candidates.
We might rephrase this by saying that both Europe and the United States are, in fact, parts of a common, big-tent grouping — call it the West, the Atlantic community or the developed world (whichever you like — all are a bit imprecise).
Let's start with the economy — and above all the distribution and redistribution of its output. It is universally observed that the United States is an economically more unequal society than Europe, with greater stratification between rich and poor. Much of this is true.
A measure of average Gini coefficients during the last decades of the 20th century reveals that the United States is among the most unequal societies. The inequalities have grown wider, and the most recent measures put the United States beyond all European nations, a touch more unequal than the United Kingdom.
However, that commonplace wisdom refers to the measure of income differentiation. If we look at wealth instead — which is arguably the more permanent and socially meaningful measure — the results are somewhat different.
The richest 1% of Americans owned about 21% of all wealth in 2000. Some European nations have higher concentrations than that.
In Switzerland in 1997, the richest percent owned 35%, and in Sweden — despite that nation's egalitarian reputation — the figure is 21%, exactly the same as for the Americans.
And if we take account of the massive moving of wealth offshore and off-book permitted by Sweden's tax authorities, the richest 1% of Swedes are proportionately twice as well off as their American peers.
Plotting Gini coefficients for household net wealth from the Luxembourg Wealth Study reveals that the United States is unequal — but only slightly more so than Germany and somewhat less so than Sweden. In other words, the United States falls towards the high end of the European spectrum of inequality — but not off it.
What does this say about poverty? If you use a relative definition of poverty, say 60% of median incomes, then it follows in large measure that the wider the inequality, the higher the rate of relative poverty.
But inequality and poverty are not the same thing. If we want to have a sense of how many people are actually having a hard time making ends meet, rather than just how many have proportionately less than the affluent within their own country, then we will want to look also at absolute poverty.
If we take as a measure of absolute poverty the actual cash sum equivalent to 60% of median income for the original six nations of the EU in 2000, it turns out that many western European countries have a higher percentage of poor citizens than the United States. These include not only the Mediterranean countries, but also the UK and Ireland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden.
Needless to say, these and all other figures are phrased in internationally comparable terms, usually based on purchasing power parity, so that cost of living differences are taken into account.
Editor’s Note: This is Part I of a five-part series adapted from THE NARCISSISM OF MINOR DIFFERENCES by Peter Baldwin, published by the Oxford University Press. Copyright 2010 Peter Baldwin. Reprinted with permission of the author.