United States - an European view


Alexis de Tocqueville declared (in Democracy in America 1835) that the development and maintenance of democracy in the United States is dependent on the religious heritage of the founding fathers and he elevated this finding to a universal truth: “I am inclined to think that if faith is wanting in him, he must be subject, and if he be free, he must believe”. Herman Melville (1819–1891), that all-American writer, exclaims in jesting earnest: “The Great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipotence, our divine equality.” (Moby Dick, 1851)

The Americans will in the future have to confront each and every one of the problems they now so resolutely put on the back burner. (Originally I wrote these lines in 2006. In the summer of 2008 as I am redrafting them, it appears that the future has already arrived.)

United States in the world

The cradle of democracy

Before the Reformation, democracy was unknown in Europe (and the rest of the world), apart from a few free cities and isolated farmer republics. Religious emancipation, Enlightenment ideas and the precedents of Antiquity, paved the way for democratic development, culminating with the American Revolution – actually an evolution.

Democratic ideas may have achieved wide dissemination through the French revolution, but practical democracy was sorely neglected. Napoleon introduced advanced constitutions wherever he went, but as Benjamin Franklin (1706–90) pointed out in his confrontation with the British Parliament “No power, how great so ever, can force men to change their opinion.”

The French revolution put the ideas of enlightenment into undeserved disrepute and did democracy a disservice. Europe was saddled with the reactionary Holy Alliance and even worse, a romanticized revolutionary ideology that poisoned reform efforts, particularly in the more backward countries. Idealistic self-sacrifice, intellectual arrogance and fixation with physical terror were to erupt time and again in senseless acts of violence. When a revolution is necessary, it is unfortunately impossible and when it is possible it is unnecessary – the powers that be are already open to reform.

In the first decades of independence, political passions threatened to break up the new North American union. The violent party infighting made the first US Presidents despair. In his farewell address, George Washington warned the listeners of the ruinous effects of the party spirit. “It exists under different shapes in all Governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but in those of the popular form it is seen in its greatest rankness and is truly their worst enemy.” In 1805 John Adams (1735–1826), the second President of the United States, is querying the state of the Union: “… are ambition and greed, flattery, pettiness, avarice, lust for riches, contempt for principles, the spirit of party and faction the governing motives and principles?” Not for the last time would a standard bearer of democracy feel disgust at democratic practices.

When Europe receded to become a democratic backwater, the United States was the obvious vanguard, and thence Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–59) traveled in 1831. His observations and reflections are laid down in La Démocratie en Amérique which was published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840. The author had just reached the ripe age of 26 and was not burdened by the baggage of scientific merit. We may well ponder the fact, that almost two centuries later we have been unable to significantly increase our understanding of the essence of democracy.

In defense of democracy

Even in the bright light of hindsight, the resurgence of democracy after the Second World War seems nothing less than miraculous. In Europe the leftist intelligentsia proclaimed in unison the inevitable victory of socialism, while the conservatively minded were inclined to accept it as a fact with a sigh of resignation. The majority of mankind was already in the grip of decidedly undemocratic regimes and the home front was undermined by devoted communists, Maoists, pacifists and assorted fellow travelers. The concept of democracy itself was prostituted and began to lose its meaning. The market economy became a term of abuse.

Fortunately, ordinary people retained a healthy skepticism toward the blessings of world revolution. Ex-communists offered testimony of the actual practice of socialism and social democratic politicians repeatedly demonstrated the courage of their convictions in the fight against communist infiltration. Even so, the game would have been lost without the resolute foreign policy and military readiness of the United States. The gradual re-structuring of Europe could take place only under cover of the US nuclear umbrella.

Without the United States and President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) the game would have been up. He realized that a reiteration of the isolationist policy after World War I would have left Stalin an open field and eventually put the United States in an impossible position. The Marshall Plan and NATO gave Europe a shot in the arm, while a resolute re-armament put paid to Soviet military advances.

The resolution of the United States was tested in the Korean war 1950-53, where Truman brought communist aggression to a halt and also drew a line to warfare by refusing General MacArthur the use of nuclear weapons. In Vietnam the mission was similar but the support of the other democracies was not forthcoming; in the 1960s, the Europeans were not equally concerned about the advance of communism.

Taking the offensive

After the implosion of the Soviet Union, the United States has taken on the role as a world police, with or without the sanction of the United Nations. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on 9.11.2001 was an incitement to make the world safe, once and for all, for democracies in general and for the United States in particular.

The invasion of Afghanistan was reluctantly accepted by world opinion. But when President George Bush set about to depose Saddam Hussein, arguably the worst tyrant in the world, President Jacques Chirac of France did his best to sabotage the operation. Tony Blair, the British premier, lined up in support of the United States but the Western Europeans by and large dissociated themselves from the ‘warmongers’ Bush and Blair – an echo from the irresponsible pacifism and appeasement of the 1930s. The lack of approval of the United Nations caused a great stir, despite Saddam’s persistent refusal to comply with the resolutions of the Security Council. The hypocrisy of this argument was quickly exposed when the European Union unanimously agreed that the fast deployment forces being established could act without the UN approval.

Most observers were surprised when it became clear that Saddam was not sitting on a secret store of weapons of mass destruction; that would have been the only sensible explanation for his posturing. His well-documented will and capability to produce and to use such weapons is highly relevant. Saddam Hussein swimming in oil money and brooding on revenge, joining up with sundry terrorists, is a nightmare we have been spared. But it is too early to judge the feasibility of a democratic government in an Islamic context.

The battle for oil has been a favorite for conspiracy mongers; it has a sufficient basis in reality to provide credibility in many situations. It is widely assumed, that the selfish oil interests of the United States dominate its policies in the Middle East. But only 6.7% of the US oil consumption came from this area in 2005. Other importers, particularly the EU, Japan, China and India are much more reliant on oil from the Middle East.

The world policeman

The call for help sounds ever higher from countries where the government has to be rebuilt from the ground up, with or without democracy. The European Union is developing its capability to project ‘soft power’ by preventive action. How this will work out is an open question; at the time of writing the outcome of interventions in Lebanon and Congo is pending. In general, the actual application of force still falls to the United States, which is becoming increasingly reluctant to engage itself in unpopular international policing.

Instead of close cooperation, the policing of the world and the attendant unpopularity have gladly been left to the United States. The country is today by far the strongest force in global politics, but its role as a world police is untenable in the longer term. By now the joints are creaking.

Everywhere and particularly in the United States, success in the political zero-sum game implies that every opportunity to blacken an adversary is put to good use. Nowadays, an activist foreign policy is no vote-winner in democracies. The unavoidable sacrifices and reverses present a suitable target for the opposition which has a field day vilifying unjustified expenditure and shocking casualties.

In Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire (2004), Niall Ferguson predicts that the United States will reject its mission as responsible imperialist. The country will soon return to relative isolationism if it does not get more support from other democracies. This would open the field for all kinds of bad behavior and engender a more dangerous world. A long-term democratic strategy would then be a futile undertaking when the so-called responsible governments were fully occupied in shuffling the jackass card to each other.

Only a united and empowered European Union can be an equal partner to the United States and take on its part of the responsibility for the future of humanity – liberty, justice, prosperity and security on a global scale. Such a democratic mission is, to my mind, the only way to protect our inalienable heritage. It is also the only passage to sustainable progress for less privileged groups and nations. Violent conversion is out of the question but unacceptable behavior has to be checked. A sufficient military preparedness exerts a salutary influence on potential troublemakers.

World opinion

The inhabitants of less developed countries project their frustrations on the surrounding world. This practice is not alien to democracies, albeit in more moderate terms. Nowadays the debasing of neighbors in the European Union is beyond the pale and therefore the United States has become a bugbear, responsible for most of the wrongs in the world.

In Africa it is widely believed that the HIV-virus was developed in the United States in order to decimate the black population. (This allegation is apparently taken seriously by some prominent Afro-Americans, too.) Many Arabs maintain that the attack on the World Trade Center on 9.11.2001 was staged by the Americans (alternatively the Israelis) to create a pretext for an assault on the Arab states. There seems to be no bounds to imputing every evil in the world to the United States. The tsunami of 12.24.2004 produced wild speculations around the Arab world, that American weapon tests were the cause of the disaster. A Saudi-Arabian professor asserted that Allah’s punishment of the Christians was appropriately imposed during Christmas, callously disregarding the overwhelming Muslim majority among the victims.

Domestic distress

Dwindling social capital?

In 1831 de Tocqueville wondered about the proliferation of voluntary organizations in the United States. He says: “In my opinion, nothing deserves more attention than the educational and moral associations of America.” In 1997 there were 22,901 nationwide voluntary organizations registered in the US. The local associations must number in the millions. The Nordic countries are not far behind. In 2000, Finland, a country of about five million people, had 115,000 registered voluntary organizations with a total membership in excess of 15 million.

Thus democracy seems to be thriving in its old, core countries but the activity, enthusiasm and commitment of the citizens can’t be discerned from these figures. In Bowling Alone (2000), Robert Putnam analyzes the changes in the social capital of the United States in recent decades. He finds discouraging trends in civic engagement. Particularly the reshaping of family life by protracted television viewing has had a negative impact.

While Putnam can only see a few bright spots, Richard Florida presents a rejoinder in The Rise of the Creative Class (2002). The social capital is replenished by footloose but gifted youngsters – high bohemians – gravitating to centers of attractive diversity. Putnam and Florida may both be right when describing the present social dynamics from diverging angles. Neither takes the Internet seriously as a new source of social contacts; whether it will build up social capital is indeed an open question. In any case, Americans still appear willing to volunteer for social work.

In The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order (1999), Francis Fukuyama has addressed this problem. The symptoms of ebbing social capital and societal trust in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century are annotated in considerable detail. But when facing the new millennium, Fukuyama strikes a more optimistic note and wonders if we are heading for a new moral revival in the mode of the Victorian breakthrough in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Political and legal entanglement

Besides Great Britain, the United States has the longest experience of a pure-bred two-party democracy. Gerrymandering is the art of fixing the boundaries of the constituencies in a manner favoring the dominant party. Both on the federal and state levels, the representatives of the people fight to the limit for the interests of their constituencies with little regard for the whole. The horse-trading is often intense before important votes, and occasionally the legislation is weighed down by the amassed pork.

In The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad (2003), Fareed Zakaria laments the irresponsible public opinion in modern democracies. When the public insists on participation in decision making, the authority of the political leadership is undermined. They do not lead any more but try desperately to follow the intentions of the electorate which are mapped in exquisite detail. If public opinion becomes a dominant power, the political process will become even messier and the responsibility ever fuzzier – Athens’ classic democracy still haunts us.

The drug policies in Europe are more or less a facade. In the west we generally practice what Friedman calls the Victorian compromise. Many laws are not intended to be rigorously applied but serve to prop up public morality. Flagrant crimes are brought to trial but a strict supervision would be too expensive, too intrusive and politically inexpedient. The official norms can be flouted, provided there is no scandal. Antiquated laws are simply forgotten and are annulled only after a long delay.

Singapore is, as far as I know, the only country which has been successful in maintaining a consistent drug policy. The death penalty is pronounced for the possession of more than 25 grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine or 500 grams of cannabis. Anybody can be tested and drug addicts are forcibly interned for rehabilitation for at least six months. Still, a small local market is supplied by smuggling from adjacent Malaysia. In most countries we encounter typically democratic compromises. Drugs cannot be legalized but neither is there the will to make a determined effort to enforce the ban. The legislation in the United States is strict and the prisons are overflowing but, all the same, drug trafficking seems to be an attractive business.

The United States is the most litigious country in the world. If an accident has occurred, somebody must be at fault – preferably somebody well-heeled. The law commands respect which is reflected in the imposing court architecture. Damages can be astronomical and even major companies may be driven into bankruptcy. The asbestos trials, based on tort law, have to date caused about seventy bankruptcies. Although the figures are not strictly comparable, the United States has twenty-five times more lawyers per capita than Japan; the output of law-schools is now increasing all over East Asia.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) carries responsibility for the safety of drugs and foodstuffs. Official decisions can signify not millions but billions in profit or loss, and the staff is under intense scrutiny. Every phone call from interested parties is immediately documented and filed. Two officials were always present when I made visits to the FDA in Washington; a private discussion was out of the question. (It took a full ten years for us to get the final approval for the use of xylitol as a food ingredient; today it is widely used as a tasty and tooth-friendly substitute for common sugar.)

Under such circumstances, the natural reaction is to postpone decisions, ask for additional information and clarification, resort to nitpicking; it cannot be a breach of duty. During the 1970s, FDA was grinding to a halt with its risk-minimizing internal procedures. The public was effectively protected from ground-breaking cures. The Reagan administration established a more business-friendly atmosphere but the turbulence continues. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The United States is making valiant efforts to curb undue influence. Washington lobbyists have to register and twice annually they have to deliver a report which divulges clients, lobbying objects and expenditures among other things. Lobbying cannot be restricted, because the first amendment to the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the right of the citizens to present petitions to the magistrates. But by making lobbying public, the worst misconduct can hopefully be checked. After the Abramoff scandal the rules will be tightened again, though to what effect remains to be seen.

My only experience of lobbying in the USA is positive. We had introduced crystalline fruit sugar in the US-market and tried to attain legal equality with common sugar. Our lawyers contacted a congressman and a ten line law amendment sailed through the house and the senate to be signed into law by President Jimmy Carter a few months later.

Financial woes

(For a comment on the latest economic crisis, see my article A moral deficit – the root cause of the financial foul-up.)

From the very beginning the constituent states of the federation of The United States of America jealously guarded their rights, and the subsidiarity principle was scrupulously observed. Everything which was not explicitly a federal concern was managed by the states. Latterly the balance has, in the name of equality, shifted towards joint responsibility. Accordingly the federal welfare programs are about to inundate the taxpayer. It is politically very difficult to decentralize by pushing responsibility back, closer to the consumer of welfare services.

Mancur Olson shows in The Rise and Decline of Nations (1969) how government failure ensues when small, closely knit interest groups, whom he calls distributive coalitions, achieve disproportionate influence, not least on taxation. In many countries the tax code produces a veritable science which serves as a base for sophisticated tax planning. In the United States the assumed loss to the national economy is hundreds of billions of dollars when compared with a straightforward flat tax with basic deductions.

Progressive taxation has for long been a mantra but now it is being questioned. The discussion was initiated in 1985 by Robert Hall and Alvin Rabuschka with The Flat Tax which was inspired by the monstrous tax code of the United States. Russia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia already apply a flat income tax, and it is discussed in many of the core countries of the European Union. On the other hand, a negative income tax is also on the political agenda. It would endorse the right of the citizens to live at the expense of the state, that is, off other people.

In Sweden the wealth tax and the inheritance tax have been abolished. The left has traditionally held that such taxation is an important tool for social equalization. But the proceeds had been hollowed out by special statutes and astute tax planning; finally the tax only applied to the average Swede.

The long-term availability of oil is or should be a major concern above all for the United States. The problem has caused much agony but a rise of the gasoline tax is scrupulously avoided. Such a market friendly solution would deliver badly-needed cash for the exchequer but is said to entail political suicide for its advocates. Instead a set of clumsy and ineffectual laws has been introduced to put a lid on average gas consumption.

The economists have a habit of castigating exaggerated thrift because it strangles consumption. But most experts agree that the consumption craze in the United States was out of hand when the savings rate fell to close to zero in 2005. In 2007 it was still a measly 0.4%.


Thomas Sowell (in The Quest for Cosmic Justice, 1999) sees the radical call for equality as a threat to the judicial system, to the freedom of the individual and in the last instance to the constitution of the United States. Although Europeans have mostly avoided overt positive discrimination, we have advanced further along other avenues. In its redistribution policies, Sweden has gone farthest in the pernickety administration of social justice. But even social democratic governments have found it expedient to deviate from cherished egalitarian principles.

In America, wave after wave of poor immigrants have advanced from the slums to a comfortable middle-class existence. Poverty is not an unsolvable problem. This is a provocation for people who have betted their political future on a permanent underclass. Propping up their position, they have turned to qualified deceit by statistics. In the European Union, poverty is defined as an income which is less than 60% of the median – a semantic hocus-pocus. Previously, the figure was 50% which obviously did not produce the desirable outcome. In any case, one arrives at a number of between 10 and 20% ‘poor’ in society, which is virtually unshakable and ‘scientific’ evidence of the prevailing injustice.

The statistics are based on taxable income. Students as well as wealthy individuals with irregular earnings are unashamedly included among the poor; untaxed income is completely disregarded. Sowell cites a study by Greg Duncan et al., Years of Poverty, Years of Plenty, which shows that only three percent of the US population was permanently below the official poverty line. Most of the ‘poor’ are youngsters or persons who are temporarily out of work.

A substantial income or wealth is hardly morally despicable as such. Alternatively, differences in consumption between social groups could be the target for criticism. But the relevant statistics would have quastionable political utility. For example, in the United States the total expenditures of the officially poor exceed their official income by more than 100%! Almost half of the poor have title to their homes.

In Sweden and Great Britain whole blocks of subsidized apartment dwellings are razed; they have become uninhabitable in a few decades. The inhabitants ought to be responsible for their surroundings, but in a collective with no ownership interest the hooligans often take over. The City of New York, the bulwark of capitalism, excels in rent regulation; almost half of the flats are isolated from the free market. At least the lawyer Mary Ann Hallenborg is making money out of the inherent contradictions. She has written New York Tenant’s Rights as well as the New York Landlord’s Law Book.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, a federal ordinance was promulgated which prescribed eight hours monthly social service (with many exceptions) for the inhabitants of federally subsidized apartment blocks in New York. The implementation was delayed by local New York politicians and as late as in April 2004 agitated tenants were demonstrating against the ‘racist’ directive.


The United States is undergoing a moral reappraisal which exposes all the rifts in society. In Europe, sensitive antennae are required to detect weak signals in this direction. But I believe that ultra-liberalism has passed its best before date in Europe, too. Europeans, though, have not yet achieved a common consciousness which would provide a base for a passionate debate as well as for genuine solidarity within the Union.