Friday, March 06, 2009

How Do You Say 'Google' In French?

I like France.

My partner and I went to Paris last year. It was my partner's third trip to France and my second. I love the old buildings, the cathedrals, the food and just the life of the City of Lights. I know that we will go back to Paris again, and maybe see even more of France.

While I love going to France, I don't want to be France.

The land of wine, champagne, Citroen and the Effiel Tower seems to be on the tip on many tounges as of late. In the wake of the first Obama budget, France seems to keep coming up. France has become a way of talking about European-style social democracy, where government has a large role in the economy. Why France and not say, Sweden, I don't know. Many of my liberal friends seem long for a goverment that offers care from womb-to-tomb.

For many of us in the center or the center-right, we look at the President's budget with some trepidation. Of course, we need to find a way to deal with health care in the United States. Government needs to find ways to help solve this and other issues. But having a role doesn't always mean running the whole show.

Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times that he fears the United States might become like our Gaullist neighbors and in his mind is not a good idea:

I lived for about a decade, on and off, in France and later moved to the United States. Nobody in their right mind would give up the manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre for the unrelenting battlefield of American ambition were it not for one thing: possibility.

You know possibility when you breathe it. For an immigrant, it lies in the ease of American identity and the boundlessness of American horizons after the narrower confines of European nationhood and the stifling attentions of the European nanny state, which has often made it more attractive not to work than to work. High French unemployment was never much of a mystery.

Americans, at least in their imaginations, have always lived at the new frontier; French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries.

Churn is the American way. Companies are born, rise, fall and die. Others come along to replace them. The country’s remarkable capacity for innovation, for reinvention, is tied to its acceptance of failure. Or always has been. Without failure, the culture of risk fades. Without risk, creativity withers. Save the zombies and you sabotage the vital.

If America loses sight of these truths, it will cease to be itself.

Clive Crook, a British expat, has written an extensive essay on his own fears that we might become like France. He agrees with Cohen that adopting a Euro-style social welfare system, could be done- but it would mean sacrificing who we are as Americans.

To put it mildly, I admire this country's instinctive suspicion of concentrated state power, its anti-collectivism, its veneration of the individual spirit and individual enterprise. At different times and in different ways, Democrats and Republicans alike have been at war with aspects of that mind-set, but as an admiring foreigner, I am here to tell you that this culture survives, that the American exception is alive and well, and that it is more than likely the secret of this country's awesome success...

This promised transformation is not a move into unexplored territory, after all. The policies that Obama is proposing have all been tried elsewhere. Ideas that look bold and new in this country are old hat across the Atlantic. And we know something about how well they work.

A strong case can be made for many of Obama's proposals, taken one at a time. I admire his ambition to mend the country's failing, unjust, and needlessly expensive health care system. I also applaud his focus on raising the incomes of the working poor, through tax cuts and wage subsidies (such as his "make work pay" tax credits). But trade-offs need to be faced. A good hard look at Europe makes this plain.

Bigger government requires higher taxes -- in the end, for most taxpayers and not just the rich. Europe shows that tax systems tilted too far against high earners stifle the incentives that spur economic growth. Welfare systems that are more generous and have fewer strings tend to raise unemployment. Stricter regulation can and does retard innovation. Stronger unions can raise unemployment and, in the aggregate, lower incomes.

America is not a perfect society. I am not one of those conservatives that like to talk about the United States being the greatest country on earth and then ignore some glaring problems like health care. But I also think that what is so great about this country is that we are a dynamic culture. We have always been a nation of strivers. Yes, the recent crisis shows that there are some negative effects at times, but on the whole, it has made America a world leader. As I am wont to saying, there is a reason that we don't see a French version of Google, or a German version of Apple. Because of the high taxation and strict regulation, there is less room for entrepeneurs. Yes, European societies tend to be "safe" in that there are generous government policies, but there is little room for innovation.

I agree with Crook that such changes have a chance to shape American character for good or for ill. I am not arguing that no changes need to be made. After the whole mortgage problems, there is need for greater regulation. There is need for reform of the unemployment system or definitely health care. But it seems to me that instead of looking to Europe for the answer, shouldn't we be looking here in America?

Like I said, I like France, but I don't want to live there.

No comments: