Is the Grass Any Greener in Europe?

U.S. Leaders should Exercise Caution When Seeking Solutions Abroad

Only a few years ago, an American scarcely could pick up a newspaper or magazine without reading about Japan's immense economic success and impending world domination.

Japan, with growth rates far out-stripping our own, and endowed with a huge trade surpuls, was cast as a country with a future, while America was depicted sinking amidst the decrepit wreckage of a glorious past.

Today, with the Japanese economy suffering through a recession, one hears relatively little about the Japanese miracle. Indeed, members of the mainstream media are now falling over one another in their haste to declare that Japan's success was never without its costs.

Only now do we hear, for example, that Japan's export-oriented trade policy has caused Japanese consumers to suffer excruciatingly high prices for basic foodstuffs, or that (as Irwin Seltzer has noted in Commentary) a Japanese worker of average income is 20 times more likely to be without indoor toilet facilities than is a poor American.

Yet even America's fading envy of Japan was powerful enough to inspire a 1992 presidential candidate, Ross Perot, who advocated a fundamental shift towards Japanese-style government-industry cooperation in a presidential race dominated by economic issues.

Perot, and his confused economic vision, was rejected at the ballot box. But the election certainly was not a ringing affirmation of traditional American policy, as Bill Clinton's campaign (and now his presidency) consistently championed the European economic model.

Clinton's appeal to the European practices is most obvious in the area of health the area of health care. Indeed, the Clinton administration commonly cites proportionally lower European spending as a justification for health care reform.

But health care is not the only area where American policy-makers covet European models. Generally, social welfare is seen as an area in which America would do well to imitate the European example, The Clinton-supported family leave act is but one example of a social program patterned after a European precedent. Europe, it is widely believed, has solved problems that still vex American society.

This should all sound strangely familiar. As was the case with Japan, Americans are focusing on the most trendy foreign successes without investigating their costs. And there are costs.

Even Germany, the most prosperous and successful of the European welfare states, suffers ill effects from her social policies. Kurt J. Lauk has noted in Daedalus that the unemployment benefits for a married German male worker with two children amount to 71 percent of his previous net income.

Lauk also has calculated that the effective German work week amounts to only 29.9 hours after factoring in paid vacation time, holidays and generous sick-day provisions.

Even with an educated and productive workforce, it is difficult to sustain an incentive-driven economy with figures like these. Similarly, the perpetual high rates of unemployment in European countries can often be traced to stringent government restrictions on hiring and firing.

This is not to say that America can learn nothing from German and Japanese polices. In public education, for example, America would do well to imitate certain aspects of the German and Japanese systems.

Nonetheless, Americans policy-makers should not romanticize the successes of other countries, and should question the wisdom of applying alien "solutions" to American problems. The same policies that produced enviable results in Germany and Japan have also caused significant problems.

The Clinton administration clearly thinks that the European welfare states such as Germany have, in a large degree, "got it right." But it is very easy to see the successes caused by unfamiliar policies in unfamiliar places; to discover their flaws often proves much more difficult.

One sees the green grass on the other side of the fence immediately; only later does one notice the Chemlawn truck parked on the corner.

President Clinton surely realizes that in pursuing a European vision for American society he will embrace both the benefits and the flaws of European policy. Let us hope that he understands just how great these flaws are.