George Weigel Misrepresents Europe’s Social Welfare Systems

George Weigel, writing in The National Review Online, warns of an impending loss of “free and voluntary associations” in the U.S. if the Obama Administration’s HHS “contraceptive mandate” is allowed to stand.

Will the robust networks of free and voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville admired as the sinews and musculature of American democracy continue to flourish? Or will the United States increasingly resemble Western Europe, where the associational instinct (and, with it, civil society) has atrophied under the heavy weight of the European nanny state?

Weigel would like us to be afraid—very afraid—of going down the path that Europe has followed, and he would like us to believe that HHS mandate will certainly take us there.

But his grim characterization of Western Europe does not correspond to reality, and Obamacare is much to be desired if it promises outcomes like those achieved by European societies.

Neo-conservatives would be all too happy to link Europe’s current ills to its sometimes generous social security nets. But their linkage can’t be verified in any stats that I have found. Europe’s fiscal problems were brought on by a multiplicity of factors, including excessive lending by German banks—with resulting high levels of sovereign debt (in a few countries)—trade imbalances, monetary policy constraints built into the flawed design of the eurozone, loss of confidence, and the refusal of the European Central Bank to apply Keynesian remedies.

No correlation has been found between social welfare programs and sovereign debt issues. For example, the UK’s public debt over the past 20 years has ranged from 50% to about 90% of GDP, while that of the U.S. has ranged from 70% to 100% of GDP. France, which has very strong social welfare programs, has had a mostly lower level of debt than the U.S. Japan also has strong social welfare and its debt levels are about the highest in the world (around 200% of GDP). This does not mean that Japan’s debt was “caused” by its social welfare programs, however. Look at Canada, northern Europe, and Spain: their debt levels are about the same as ours.

Greece got into trouble because there was massive wealth disparity there, like what we are now seeing in the U.S., and the wealthiest individuals and corporations were not paying taxes (also happening here). That is the recipe for disaster, not social welfare programs.

Europe’s problems were exacerbated by the inability and sometimes the refusal of the eurozone members to implement Keynesian measures like stimulus (from the government) and quantitative easing (from the European Central Bank.)

All this information is freely available to anyone who wants to spend a few minutes researching it. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman has provided an outstanding play-by-play analysis of the crisis in his weekly NYT column.

Some additional information that is perhaps more pertinent to Weigel’s remarks about Europe is to be found in the Happy Planet Index (HPI, from the New Economics Foundation), and the Human Development Index (HDI), which ranks countries by their standards of living and quality of life. There are four HDI rankings: very high, high, medium, and low. The U.S., Japan, Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe are all ranked “very high.” Of course, these are all countries with robust social welfare systems in place, except the U.S., where about 50 million people are uninsured. Countries without social support systems rank much lower than those with such systems. You can check this out by googling “Human Development Index.”

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