Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Opposite of Competition in Europe and the U.S.

Last week, Charlemagne, The Economist’s weekly column, had a good wrap-up of one major differences between continental Europeans and Anglo-Saxons:

If you play word association, it turns out that for many in a Parisian classroom, the polar opposite of “competition” is “solidarity”: i.e. the useful rigor imposed by competition is overshadowed by the pain caused as society divides into winners and losers. For Anglo-Saxon liberals, the instinctive opposite of “competition” is “monopoly”: i.e. the pain of competition is justified by a quest for fairness, even before getting to arguments about efficiency and companies’ long-term fitness.

In Paris the idea that a free-market liberal may believe he is defending a moral position (rather than a necessary evil) often causes surprise. In parallel, it is salutary to be reminded that the other side has a point too. The open borders written into the
EU can be both positive and painful, as globalisation produces losers as well as winners.
As the object of this blog is to try to build bridges between the United-States and France, this is not only relevant but also deserves pause for thought. If we consider that we are all products of our environment, I would be tempted to see (partly at least) a historical explanation to this divide between our views of economics.

For centuries, wars, revolutions and plagues ravaged the European continent and the impact on civilians only worsened with modern times to reach the climaxes of World War I and World War II and both wars changed Europe more than anything else since the Great Plagues in the 13th century.
One might argue that the notion of "solidarity" started to gain popularity during the enlightment and gained momentum with the French Revolution. Others might think the French Commune was also a major change, but I would argue that it took the impact of two world wars to build the consensus over the notion of solidarity.
In other words, the only way to survive and reconstruct a society that has been near annihilation is to get people to unite not only at a local level, but even at a state level – hence the need for welfare and government intervention. Contrary to the late 19th century, it became a national consensus in many European countries – and especially in France. The greater the destruction, the more national ‘solidarity’ was needed. (Americans may have had a sense of what that means when they think of the aftermath of Katrina). This also explains why the British turned toward a more socialistic policy (with a wave of nationalizations) in the wake of WWII, even though this world view is less engrained in their mindset, in part because destructions, wars and revolutions have not been part of their recent history to the level of continental Europe. This is why Europe has been built around the core idea of peace, security and prosperity. This is also why security (including economic security) is more relevant to the Europeans.

Now of course, there are many other historical factors to explain this quasi obsession with ‘solidarity’ – class antagonism, or the political role of the church (in France for instance), but it seems to me that the drift between Europe and the U.S. has been even greater in the aftermath of WWII. This, you might add, is an old story. After all, it’s been over 60 years now.
True, but the trauma of destruction lingers on and is passed on to the next generations. It also shaped a society and has turned the values of solidarity into mythical proportions (Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité say the French). This, by the way, also explains why the Europeans are so keen on using diplomacy to the last resort and war as the last possible option – the trauma of war is greater in Europe, even at a subconscious level. (Many Americans often forget how the scars of World Wars are visible in every single village in continental Europe).

Imagine 9/11 or Katrina and multiply it to the point that everyone in the nation is personally affected and you can be sure if would change the values of the American people for decades. After all, the 1930s economic crisis almost turned the U.S. into a near-socialistic government.

This is not to say that Europe knows better. There can’t be value judgment in this, and no one is right or wrong. But it would help bridge the gap between us if Europeans and Americans realized that their world views are shaped by their history and that they are products of their own environment and history which they cannot escape and that there is precisely no value judgment to be made.

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