By Rick Plasterer
The slide of western societies, first European societies and now the United States, towards a culture of entitlement, dependence, collectivism, and secularism was the topic of a presentation of Dr. Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute, held at the Westminster Institute, on Wednesday evening, February 6. In the presentation, Gregg discussed the main ideas of his newly published book, Becoming Europe.
Dr. Gregg said the Europe “is the sick man of the global economy.” What it is experiencing in its “soaring unemployment” is no ordinary recession, but the “breakup of an entire way of organizing economic life.” Essentially, life organized by “free association,” in which human needs, whether wealth creation, charitable, or educational activities are handled in voluntary associations, intermediate between the state and the individual, is being replaced by a “statism,” in which the state is the structure in which we discharge our obligations to others. Another way of saying this is that the state is replacing free association as the chief tool to implement social “solidarity.” What is distressing about the European situation is that the center/right portion of the political spectrum is now accepting of this collectivist vision. Any deviations from this vision are “presented as necessary evils” to return to the collectivist status quo.
This vision is in striking contrast to the traditional American vision, reported by de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century, which emphasized voluntarism both in the economy and in general social action, Gregg said. Currently only minorities of the public in Europe support this vision. In answer to the question “the free market is the best system,” only 19% of respondents in Great Britain agreed, while 30% of respondents in Germany agreed in a 2011 survey. By contrast 80% of Americans agreed with the statement in 2002, while eight years later, only 59% of Americans agreed with the statement. Young Americans have an even lower view of the free market, and millions of Americans have developed fairly inflated expectations about what the government owes them, Gregg indicated.
Overall, the public in western societies now agree with “statism,” and social democracy is seen as “normal.” Western Europe is “Exhibit A” in the consequences, which are enormous debt and government regulation.
For America to avoid becoming Europe, there must be “significant attitudinal change” with the public. American politicians must see that 1) the American people are unwilling to go down the path of Europe, and 2) will accept the practical consequences of this commitment. While conservative political leaders may be very skilled at presenting the consequences of statism, and supporting it with arguments and statistics, “policy is not enough,” and a moral vision must also be advanced which shows that the free market, and not the rejection of it, is conducive to human flourishing. Gregg said this involves more than simply shifting incentives, but is a moral vision (what George H.W. Bush called “the vision thing”) necessary to “stem and reverse” the drift to social democracy. The moral argument for free enterprise involves: 1) prioritizing wealth creation over the redistribution of wealth, 2) belief in the rule of law rather than the rule of men, 3) openness to the future rather than insistence on security, and 4) hope in the future rather sustaining the status quo.
In the course of questions, Gregg agreed that the normative argument, is in significant measure dependent on the prevailing religious environment. Many people in the West believe that “the purpose of life is to have our desires satisfied,” and that as a “matter of human right, they’re entitled” to this. On the other hand,
Christianity emphasizes hope for the future (even through its warnings of eternal judgment), and of the social duty to future generations. Where this religious orientation is lost, hope is replaced by fear (in particular fear of the future and fear of failure), and the resulting desperate need for security, which is now strikingly evident in Europe.
Nevertheless, Gregg indicated that the moral argument can be made to the public generally. Raising the status of commerce in the public mind is crucial to challenging social democracy. Europe’s inclination to collectivism is rooted in its past, which regarded commerce with disdain and accorded prestige to government officials. Consequently, young Europeans in higher education focus on government careers; about 70% of students at elite French institutions saw being a civil servant as their goal. But redistributive agencies do not help people flourish. How wealth was acquired does affect human flourishing; earned wealth is conducive to a healthy society. If the moral argument is made and is successful in a given society, the heritage of European civilization will prevail there. If it prevails in America, then for America at least “European civilization will be … transformed anew.”