“I have been half in love with easeful Death…”
– John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Easeful death: that, in a nutshell, is the topic of Samuel Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Gregg, who is the director of research at the Acton Institute, reminds us that when Alexis de Tocqueville traveled to America in 1831, he encountered a nation of people who startled and impressed him with their robustness, energy, ambition, and entrepreneurial spirit – in a word, their life. The America of today, or at least the America of not very long ago, was still recognizably, at heart, the same America that Tocqueville wrote about in Democracy in America: a country of hard-working, optimistic people who believed ardently in self-reliance, individual enterprise, and – above all – freedom.
Gregg contrasts this intensely vital America with the nations of Europe that, since World War II, have rejected U.S.-style liberal democracy in favor of social democracy, subordinating individual liberty to cradle-to-grave communal security and allowing their economic vigor to be smothered by, as Gregg puts it, the “dead hand of the state.” If indeed what Europeans enjoy today is a kind of “easeful death,” it is a death that many of them would die rather than give up. Frenchmen who can’t bring themselves to get up in the morning and go to work – preferring instead to live on generous government benefits – are nonetheless able to spend days on end marching in the streets, stopping traffic, ranting at gendermes, and mounting the barricades, Les Miz-style, in protest against even the slightest proposed rollback in those handouts.
Never mind the economic logic of the situation – the fact that something’s eventually got to give. We’re talking about multiple generations of Europeans who have been brought up on the idea that they’re entitled. The idea that a society, to be truly humane, must temper the harshness of capitalism through the multifarious efforts of a benign state. The idea that today’s European social-democratic welfare state represents the very culmination of the millennia-long progress of human civilization. And, of course, the idea that even the slightest compromise with realism would amount to an inexcusable step back toward American-style barbarism. As Jacques Chirac put it (disgracefully) in 2005, liberalism – meaning an economy more like America’s – “would be as disastrous as communism” to his country. Or how about this dumb line, which Gregg credits to former European Commission president Jacques Delors: “Cinema explains American society. It’s like a Western, with good guys and bad guys, where the weak don’t have a place.” (Yes, and in France all the conversations are in song, just like in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.) The America-as-Wild-West meme is a moribund cliché, of course, but it’s alive and well in the Land of the Dead.