Never underestimate the power of a homogeneous society when it comes to prolonging socialism *UPDATED*

One of the frustrating things about conversing with liberals is that, even as they’ll concede that socialism in Russia and China and Cuba and North Korea is not, or was not, a good thing, they’ve always got Europe to fall back upon.

European socialism works, I am told.  Europeans have assured housing, assured medical care, assured retirement, assured maternity leave, assured vacations, etc.  It is everything that America could be, if only we’d stop our ridiculous parochialism.  Even the economic disasters in Greece and Spain don’t dent this liberal belief in the validity of European-style socialism.  After all, we’ve seen market collapses before, and ships of state have still righted themselves.

Any arguments I make to counter the claim about the almighty wonders of Europe are dismissed.  The fact that Europeans have had for decades more money because the U.S. largely handled their defense is just a picayune detail, unrelated to the larger picture.  The fact that Europe has been in a slow economic decline for decades is a sour grapes statement, unrelated to the reality that all those Europeans get six weeks paid vacation a year!

The fact that the overwhelming bureaucracy necessary to run a socialist Europe increasingly deprives people of rights and freedoms we take for granted is viewed as a small price to pay for a life free of worry about job security, health care and retirement.  And finally, the fact that traditional morality declines in socialized countries, as people move ever further away from personal responsibility (since the government will clean up all their messes, whether those messes are myriad illegitimate children, or disasterous personal habits that leave one unable to to hold a job), is chalked up to a general, and worldwide, societal decline unrelated to a Nanny State.

No matter what I say, my liberals always fall back on two fundamental conclusions:  (1) they like what they see in Europe and (2) they believe that we can replicate the system.

So I’m going to take my friends at face value for a moment, and ignore what are, to me, the glaring problems with socialism (the economic unreality; the failures arising from that financial fantasy; the loss of freedom; and the breakdown of a stable, moral society).  Instead, I’ll accept that it can happen here — or can it?  I suspect that the huge chasm between European society as it existed at the end of WWII and American society as it exists now will prevent European socialism from ever taking hold.  (By the way, I’m not saying that socialism cannot be foisted on us; I’m just saying it won’t be European and, if we’re very unlucky, it will be something infinitely worse and more energetic even than that in the old USSR, China or North Korea).

When European socialism began, each European nation was a remarkably homogeneous.  The post-war English were still quintessentially English, whether one thought of Colonel Blimp, louche Bright Young Things, or Angry Young Men.  Not only was it a distinctly British culture, it was also a surprisingly non-acquisitive one.

I remember one of the best professors I had at Berkeley (yes, even Berkeley had some decent teachers), talking about the way in which the Industrial Revolution stagnated in England by the end of the 19th century, even as it continued to roar through America.  “It seems,” he said, “that the British working class had lower aspirations than Americans.  Once they achieved a certain economic level, they stopped working and innovating.”

Alan Jay Lerner, channeling George Bernard Shaw, put it perfectly:  “An Englishman’s way of speaking absolutely classifies him.  The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.”  Just as nobody should remodel a house in excess of the neighborhood (you’ll never get your money back after having created a mini-Versailles in a block full of boxy 50s tract homes), English workers knew that no amount of money would ever let most of them rise above their backgrounds and education.

I know Britain best, but I don’t doubt that the situation was similar in other European countries.  I do know that, in Holland, the Dutch moved on a similar timetable, with good housewives all scrubbing their stoops every morning, doing laundry on the same day, and generally doing as their neighbors did.  The Dutch, too, had a class system, with even a single word uttered being sufficient to give away someone’s place in the hierarchy.

Indeed, rather than try to prove homogeneity for all the socialized European nations, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean, I’ll do something different:  I defy you to name for me a single European nation in the years between the end of WWII and, say, 1985, that wasn’t homogeneous in terms of culture, and rather stagnant in terms of social aspirations.  (I suspect all the aspiring citizens had already run away to America.)

This homogeneity wasn’t just cultural.  It was also genetic.  Bloodlines in European countries went back straight and far.  Sure the British were amalgams of Celts, Saxons and a few Normans (themselves Nordic in origin), but that genetic influx ended in 1066.  The Brits then spent almost 1,000 years being genetically British.  On the continent, the Romans had seeded continental Europe pretty well, as did the Celtic and Germanic tribes, but those blood lines had also settled for several hundred years by the time European socialism rolled around.

And so we have a continent in which each separate nation has the same genes, the same belief systems, and the same habits of living.  In this, Europe is as distinct as can be from America, and that despite America’s clear European ancestry.

Whether one views America as a melting pot or a salad bowl, we Americans comprise a genetically and culturally diverse nation.  Within a single neighborhood, the Wongs are eating different food from the DiMarcos, who have different work habits from the Hansens, who don’t share the same genetic disease predispositions as the Goldbergs.  And then, of course, you get the Wong-Goldberg wedding, with a second generation emerging with an entirely new set of values, genetic diseases, and food habits — although I suspect the Goldbergs will follow the Wongs when it comes to food.  Chinese food, after all, is pretty much a wonderful thing no matter how you look at it.

Thinking about America’s cultural ebullience, and comparing it to Europe’s resemblance to a single cell organism, it’s easy to see how socialism might have worked, and worked successfully, for many decades in Europe.  A working class accustomed over the centuries to taking orders from a ruling class would adapt easily if the orders came from a drably dressed government worker, as opposed to a splendidly dressed courtier.  Likewise, a working class that never aspired too high wouldn’t complain too loudly when it was told that, in the search for economic equality, people simply couldn’t have things available in economically freer countries.  Nor would it be difficult to direct a culture that, Borg–like, had always functioned in unison.

If people share the same views on everything from the appropriate size of vegetable marrows, to the right age for marriage, to the propriety of abortion, it’s easy to enact legislation enforcing such values, or to use social pressure to force people away from those same values.  The tight communal living of Europe, after all, has always demanded a certain level of conformity.

The fact that people had the same lifestyles and genetics also helped when it came to socialized medicine.  You can allocate limited resources much better if you know that, by diet and genes, the majority of your people will die from heart attacks, not colon cancer.  Allocating medical resources in a country in which people have a huge mish-mash of hereditary diseases and lifestyle habits is infinitely more difficult (if not impossible).

So, contrary to my optimistic liberal friends, I don’t think European socialism can ever happen here.  Our petri dish is wrong.  Instead of a nice, clean agar solution that invites the healthy growth of socialism, we have a teaming fish pond that, with luck, will kill any invading socialist bacteria.

Lastly, if you’re wondering about the importance of homogeneity to the success of European socialism, think about what’s been happening in Europe since the mid-1980s, when the European countries stopped limiting immigration, and opened their doors to a flood of Eastern Europeans, Africans, East Asians, and Muslim Middle Easterners.  These people did not view the socialist welfare system as part of a social contract.  Instead, they viewed it as vast treasure house to be pillaged.

I can’t say that I blame them.  If you’re innovative, and you see a system that’s ripe for the plucking, you pluck.  But many countries now find that their lovely socialist high rises have become dangerous enclaves with values alien to the host country, and that a welfare system that depended on everyone playing the game (“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”), doesn’t work if you have an alien horde thinking “me, me, me.”  Instead of harmonious European equality, you end up with French banlieues in flames, Greek anarchists throwing fire bombs, London subways and buses blowing up and a dawning chaos that will not sustain any political or economic system for long.

UPDATE: I couldn’t resist appending to this post I picture of the three party leaders in Britain (Brown, Clegg and Cameron).  Although each is easily distinguishable from the other, there is a remarkable sameness to their looks.  Trace their profiles and you’ll see what I mean.  You probably won’t find that in America, even if, as a liberal, you’re castigating a room for being filled with “white men.”  They’ll still have different features, whether it’s high bridged noses, square chins, receding foreheads, or whatever.  These guys are the same gene pool:

Gene pools

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  • David Foster

    “…the way in which the Industrial Revolution stagnated in England by the end of the 19th century, even as it continued to roar through America.  “It seems,” he said, “that the British working class had lower aspirations than Americans.  Once they achieved a certain economic level, they stopped working and innovating.”
    It wasn’t just the working class. There was always considerable hostility to industry, and indeed to all forms of “trade,” among the upper classes and the aspiring members of the upper classes. The book “the decline of the industrial spirit in Britain,” which I need to write a review of one of these days, argues that this hostility got considerably stronger in the late 1800s…a career in finance was acceptable, one in industry, not so much.

  • Bookworm

    I agree with you completely, David.  Nothing was more antithetical to the old landed gentry than trade (although they didn’t mind getting their hands on some of that wealth).  However, I was thinking mostly of the British masses being less acquisitive and more amenable to government control than the American masses.  After all, in England, the ruling classes pretty much continued to rule.

  • Oldflyer

    Timely post, Book.   I am reading F. Hayek’s great book, The Road to Serfdom (A classic warning against the dangers to freedom inherent in social planning).
    I had to wait for months for my turn to get it from our local library.   First published in 1944, and updated in 1976, I am not sure if it is still in print.  Hayek was to win the Nobel Prize for Economics in the ’70s.  In a preface to a later edition of the book he remarks about how time and intense study had reinforced the ideas he set forth in the ’40s.
    I do not find it easy reading, as his writing style is awkward to me.  But, the ideas are compelling.
    For anyone unfamiliar, he makes little distinction between National Socialists and any other form of Socialism. (I expect that today he would be comfortable with the term Statist, to describe any form of centralized planning and control.   He also asserts mid 20th century that all western countries are to some degree socialist.  He maintained that the huge conflicts leading to WWII were because Germany and Russia had progressed so much further along the path to Socialist totalitarianism than had the other countries of Europe, and the U.S. There is no question in his mind that any country which goes down the Socialist path will be moving toward a totalitarian society. It is also his thesis that the “elites”  (my word) in any society will favor socialism; even if for the most benign reasons.  They are frequently surprised at the end result.  Socialistic  tendencies must be resisted by the mass of the people at every point.
    It is an important book, and deserves wide discussion.  He previews many of the arguments made by Conservatives today, including in his chapter entitled “The Rule of Law”.  I hope I have accurately captured the essence.
    I am sorry, but I am not as optimistic that America will be different simply because of our nature.    We have been tending incrementally toward Statism since FDR, regardless of who controls government.  Now with Obamcare , and his further plans, we are rushing through the mill-race.  Time is short to turn this around.  I honestly believe that 2010 will be one of the most pivotal years in U.S. history.

  • Charlie (Colorado)

    It’s worth remembering sometimes that Americans are, almost without exception, descended from people who just refused to go along to get along and were willing to get the bleep out rather than put up with the Old Country — for one reason or another.

  • David Foster

    Charlie…”Americans are, almost without exception, descended from people who just refused to go along to get along and were willing to get the bleep out rather than put up with the Old Country”
    Very true…however, the threshold for this has eroded considerably in the last 50 years and especially in the last 10 years.
    In 1850, if you left Ireland or Germany or wherever to come to the U.S., you would probably never again see the people you were leaving behind, or even talk to them.  You could also be exposed serious unpleasantness and risk (in steerage class, most likely) on the ocean voyage to get here.  So you had to be *really* pissed off at the way things were to make the move.
    With improvements in transportation & communications, it just isn’t nearly that big a step anymore.  So the piss-offedness threshold is lower, and people of a less rebellious turn of mind are more likely than they would have in the old days.

  • Ymarsakar

    This century has been the grain mill for “important elections”.
    2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, and now 2010.
    The New Millennium didn’t look like anything special on New Years 2000. But that’s only cause humans are short sighted.

  • Leah

    Another post that Limbaugh needs to link to.
    America is very very different from the rest of the world. The world should become more like us, not the other way around.

  • Jose

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    The increasing lack of cultural homogeneity in this country is a definite source of friction. I absolutely agree with BW that socialism in this country would not be as smooth as in Europe as there are too many different expectations of the way things should be. And the Europeans ought to be figuring that out.

    This makes me think of the “Diversity is Strength” twaddle mouthed from the DoD following the Ft Hood shootings. Like all things, there is a point past which diversity ceases to provide benefits and instead just dilutes efficiency. I’m sure it could be plotted on a bell curve.
    If diversity really did provide strength, the military, which provides a socialistic lifestyle, would let GIs dress and groom themselves as they wished.

    Which makes me wonder why statists abhor the military. Don’t they want everyone to have the same lifestyle? Haven’t the greatest socialist experiments have been run under military regimes?

    I don’t know if this makes any sense so I better stop.

  • suek

    Socialism, Venezuela, 30% inflation.


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  • Ymarsakar

    <B>Haven’t the greatest socialist experiments have been run under military regimes?</b>
    Socialism requires serfs and slaves. The military instead promotes individualism, warrior attitudes, and character integrity. The Left can’t stand that.

  • expat

    Book, We are now seeing in Germany what happens when cultural underpinnings and assumptions change. For decades, there were 3 parties, the Christian Dems, the Social Dems, and the minority Free Dems. The latter served as kingmaker and knew when the country’s mood had changed enough to warrant a change of coalition partner and thus of government. With the advent of the Greens and their access to media microphones, the percentages for the major parties started dropping a bit and coalition outcomes become less certain. The addition of the Left party only made things worse, since thus far no one wants them in their coalition, yet they get just enough votes to make coalition building even harder. You can cast your vote for the CDU and may have to deal with an environment minister who will insist that windmills are sufficient to power the country. You can’t make assumptions any more.
    Today there were state elections in North Rhine Westphalia. The government there  is now the majority maker in the Council of States, which must approve all federal legislation. It looks as if the Christian Dems will have to form a government with the Social Dems or the Greens will have the say because no other majority is possible. This means that Merkel will be at the mercy of  opponent, as if being tied to the EU and the Euro wasn’t enough.
    This crappy situation came about because no one realized how unstable proportional representation is if new parties don’t play by the same rules. It all sounds very fair on paper, but there is no one to smooth the rough edges from the demands of interest groups and without those edges or fringes, the minor parties can’t survive.  It is not even the immigrants who have eroded consensus here. It is do-gooders and disillusioned old communists chasing impossible dreams and a population willing to drink their Koolaid.

  • TommyC

    The Road to Serfdom is still in print.
    I guess that I am appalled just how many people actually want to be serfs.  Hayek’s point is that we let it happen to ourselves gradually and almost without knowing it.  But for those that keep pointing to Europe and saying ‘I want to be like that’, well, Europe is already there.  But it is not too late for us.  I like to think that people are beginning to see what is happening.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Had the Road to Serfdom been required reading in every American high-school classroom, we would not be in the predicament in which we find ourselves today.
    As far are what American EUrophiles believe about Europe, it is usually nurtured either by quick visits or living in EUroland, a living museum, on an American salary. In either case, Americans never live there long enough to experience the downside.
    I love to visit. As far as living the experience, no thanks.