It Matters

by Dave Schuler on June 2, 2014

I’ve had it up to here with comparisons of the United States, all but unfailingly disparaging, with one European country or another. We don’t sample laws or policies from a combination plate or buffet, picking what we like most from the vast array of alternatives before us. Historical, legal, and social context matters.

It matters that until very recently the Swedes were 90% ethnic Swedes and Lutherans. It matters that the Swiss are preponderantly Catholic, continue to be very religious, and that any Swiss law of any consequence is subject to a direct popular vote. It matters that the French have actively suppressed their ethnic minorities for centuries and continue to do so.

It matters that soldiers of the king in Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Poland, and Russia slaughtered Jews in organized campaigns, something that never happened in the United States.

It matters that U. S. labor law requires antagonistic positions from management and labor, something not the case under European law.

It matters that there’s a racial/ethnic divide between management and labor in some countries while not in others.

It matters that we have a common law system in the United States while most European countries have a civil code system.

We should adopt reforms that make sense in the American context not because they work so well in Norway.

Context matters.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

michael reynolds June 2, 2014 at 9:11 am

Context matters, but there are proofs of concept to be found in cross-cultural comparisons. If Uruguay legalizes pot and yet dystopia does not ensue, we can draw some insight from that.

James Joyner June 3, 2014 at 4:31 am

@Michael Reynolds: While I think legalizing pot likely a good idea, I’m not sure that Uruguay would provide proof of concept applicable here. It’s a tiny, ethnically homogeneous country.

Still, while I take Dave’s point about cultural, historical, and demographic differences when making comparisons, I agree that the fact that some program or system works well in a wide variety of countries is useful evidence that we ought consider adopting it here. I’ve long been sympathetic to nationalizing health care, for example, given how expensive and poorly performing our system is compared to virtually everyone else’s. At the same time, the fact that most European countries manage to make public transit and/or commuting by bicycle work spectacularly well doesn’t mean that we can do it here given our geography and culture.

Dave Schuler June 3, 2014 at 5:37 am

The reality of our situation is that we’re an outlier. We’re the only geographically large populous developed country. We’re also the only developed country with a long history of being multi-racial and multi-ethnic. We’re the only large country that’s been a representative democracy for 300 years.

In England the right to cross the land is sacred; here’s it’s trespassing. What’s just and right is not a universal concept. It varies based on history and maybe even genetically-conditioned preference.

What works in Monaco or Norway or Estonia (or Monaco and Norway and Estonia) tells us exactly nothing. And there are some things we do notably better than any European country. Not that you’d know it from the romantic Europhiles that make up our pundit class.

The better argument for a national health system in the U. S. is that, present circumstances notwithstanding, we’ve run a national health system larger than BNH pretty successfully for the last eighty years without becoming a communist hellhole. And we’ve run another one for a little longer than that.

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