For years conservative Republicans have pointed in apocalyptic tones to Europe as the freedom-suffocating socialist paradise of high government spending, taxation, and regulation that Democrats would transform the United States into if they ever got the chance. With the rise of the Tea Party, this became the GOP's favorite form of ammunition against President Barack Obama.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney makes the argument repeatedly on the campaign trail. Romney warns that Obama "wants to turn America into a European-style social welfare state." In the primaries Romney, displaying his characteristic knack for pandering, insisted, "Guess what. Europe isn't working in Europe. It's not going to work here. I believe in America."
Romney gives the impression that Europe is one big glob of a failed state. It's easy for Americans to forget sometimes, but Europe is in fact 27 different nations, each with its own unique culture, government, and social system. Simply criticizing "Europe" suggests someone more interested in scoring cheap political points than seriously evaluating other countries' policies.
Furthermore, it isn't at all apparent that Europe isn't working in Europe. Maybe Romney (or, more likely, his base) thinks the current debt crisis is proof that large welfare states are unsustainable, leading to spiraling deficits and high unemployment.
Greek profligacy certainly contributed to the current crisis. And, like us, Europeans are wrestling with how to reconcile commitments to the elderly and vulnerable with an aging population.
But other embattled countries like Spain and Ireland were actually running surpluses prior to the bursting of the real estate bubble. In Germany, where social spending is actually higher as a percentage of GDP than in Greece, unemployment is at 5.5 percent while deficit spending in 2011 was 1 percent of their GDP. The economy of Sweden, another extensive welfare state, grew twice as fast as ours did in 2011.
It is more accurate to say that part of Europe isn't working. Other parts of Europe are working better than America is, in certain respects. The 30-second ad frenzy we call our campaign season isn't known for subtleties like these, of course. What is disturbing, however, is that is that the GOP mainstream seems to have actually adopted the philosophy that borrowing ideas from other counties, even highly successful countries with happy citizens, is wrong.
Many Republicans think Europeans (and Democrats) want to have their cake and eat it too because, the argument goes, robust economies are incompatible with generous states. Ignoring countries that have successfully combined the two, like Denmark and Germany, allows the GOP to maintain the illusion that their policies are the only policies that have ever worked in history. All Americans need to do, they argue, is put aside their emotions and do the logical thing.
But reality is a little less black and white. Low-tax, low-spending governments are sustainable, but so are high-tax, high-spending governments, within limits. What point America chooses on the spectrum in between is a function not just of logic but of values, principles, and emotions. It's messy. To make these difficult choices informed ones, Americans should at least be able to depend on their leaders to present accurate characterizations of countries that have struck balances different than our own.
Echoing Romney, Reince Priebus, chairman of the National Republican Party, recently complained that Obama is "looking to Europe for guidance" for his policies. Maybe I'm naïve, but given the magnitude of the problems we face right now, shouldn't we be casting as wide a net as possible for solutions? I don't just want Obama looking to Europe for guidance; I want him looking to every country on Earth for ideas on how to do things better.
The idea that we should deliberately fail to learn from other countries is a recipe for national decline. South Korean teenagers vastly outscore American teenagers on math, reading, and science tests. Japan spends 9 percent of its GDP on healthcare to our 17 percent, without sacrificing quality. Canadians are more socially mobile than Americans. These are causes for hope, not despair. We're being shown the way forward. If we want this to be another American century, we need to learn from these examples, not pretend they don't exist because they clash with our preferred worldview.
Republicans insist that America needs "American solutions." But what exactly does that mean? Surely not doing things more expensively or poorly than we need to because a political party refuses to admit a mistake (something Democrats are certainly also guilty of doing).
This country was not built by people too proud to learn from others. Samuel Slater, the Father of the American Industrial Revolution, began America's first factory in 1790 after memorizing the design of Britain's textile machines. Germany's autobahn inspired President Dwight Eisenhower to propose the Interstate Highway System. In the words of Steve Jobs talking about Apple, "We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas."
Let's swallow our pride and start stealing the best ideas out there, whether they come from home or abroad. Americans need solutions, not talking points.
This post originally appeared in The Harvard Crimson.
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