Book Review: Europe’s Promise, by Steven Hill

In Vienna, Steven Hill offers policy recommendations for a new American century by emulating Continental models

TVR Books | Joseph D. Rollwagen, Justin McCauley | November 2010

The European Way

Despair, debt, and doubt – all have dragged down the economy of the United States over the past few years. Politicians offer the latest remedy for the ailing giant, but no matter what the country tries, growth seems slow in coming. While the nation is trying to lift itself out of a recession the American way, Steven Hill, the author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, says maybe the United States should look beyond the devil that it knows, to one that just might work better.

Hill, former director of the Political Reform Program at the New America Foundation and a cofounder of FairVote, a voter advocacy group aiming to change the U.S. voting system to a method of instant runoff voting, takes a close look at what is behind the superiority of Europe’s socio-economic policies over the U.S., a country still wrestling with the remnants of Reaganomics.  In his view, Europe’s approach is more successful on almost every level.

For the past year, Hill has been on a lecture tour all over North America and Europe, including stops in Athens, Berlin, Salzburg, and Vienna presenting the powerful arguments explored in his new book.

The greatest achievement of Europe’s Promise is in its dispelling of American myths regarding the European continent. The prevailing wisdom of "Euro-sclerosis" turns out to be untrue, as Hill illustrates that Europe actually has more start-up companies and small businesses than the U.S., and that these small businesses provide two-thirds of European jobs (as opposed to half in the U.S.).

Hill analyses European social democracy and steers the reader away from the conventional clichés of high taxes, high unemployment and handouts.  Addressing the comprehensive social services Europeans are provided with – including health care, education, pensions, and various family-support measures – Hill labels the system "workfare," since "all of these supports are part of a comprehensive system of institutions geared toward keeping individuals and families healthy, productive, and working."

Regarding health care, Hill goes beyond simply stating the facts – that European health care systems are the best in the world – he explains that, contrary to the belief of most Americans, "European countries do not use government-run ‘socialized medicine,’ nor do they use a U.S.-style for-profit system.  Instead, they have figured out a ‘third way,’ a hybrid with private insurance companies, cost containment, short waiting lists for treatment, and individual choice of doctors, most of whom are in private practices."  Indeed, this system even liberates European businesses from astronomical health care costs that have burdened their American counterparts.

And of course, Europe is light years ahead of the U.S. in combating global warming – from windmill-covered hillsides to underwater seamills and countless other green efforts, Europe has managed to establish and maintain an ecological footprint that is half that of the U.S. for the same standard of living.

And military spending? The conventional wisdom is that the modern European social democratic state was built on the back of the U.S. military, whose protection allowed for miniscule defense spending that provided funds for the development of extensive social programs. While this is an accurate assessment of post-war European development, it is no longer a required condition of existence, Hill told The Vienna Review. In today’s world, who are the enemies?

With 21st Century conflicts characterized by unconventional wars, terrorism and counterinsurgency, Hill points out the waste in maintaining weapons systems still "designed to fight Imperial Japan."  While maintaining U.S. conventional superiority is essential, it doesn’t need to take the 23% of the Federal budget currently allotted to defense.  A portion of this overkill expenditure could be used to create the kind of comprehensive "workfare" that would modernize infrastructure, improve education and expand the reach of health care, and other programs to benefit the country as a whole.  Hill argues that the United States could remain a superpower with a lot less waste in military spending.

But Hill’s most captivating argument is his promotion of the European social welfare system, what he reconfigured as "workfare."  Because of the institutional flaws in America’s own welfare system, many in the U.S. wrongly view the European method as a wasteful, unproductive system of blind handouts.  However, as opposed to a spotty and broken system as in the U.S., European social services provide extensive job training and family assistance, allowing for happier, more skilled and more productive workers. Considering the fact that Europeans get twice as much holiday time, plus paid sick leave, the realization that European productivity is just as high as America’s proves one point: Europeans get more bang for their buck.

The most pervasive quality-of-life issue in America remains the ailing social security system.  Hill refers to the "three-legged stool" of the American pension – your savings, your house and your social security benefits.  Since the era of Reaganomics, the average income of American families has remained stagnant (while top earners become increasingly rich).  Now, after the popping of the housing bubble, which caused home values to plummet, Hills says, "two of the three legs have been kicked out."

The only things left to keep retirees afloat, aside from working the rest of their lives, are their social security benefits. The problem is that in the United States, only about 35% of a worker’s final salary is paid to them as a pension benefit. In Europe, which was impacted to a similar degree following the crisis, people are still taken care of because of the of higher pension rates, as high as 75% in some counties.

The bottom line is, the United States acts like a stock market and gambles with many things, while providing an inefficient social net to support people if they fall, or simply when they get old.  In Europe the support is good, and always there.

It’s not a perfect model; comparing Europe and the U.S. is comparing apples and oranges.  Considering the extent of U.S. federalism, there are comparable areas of overlap, but there is also a limit to which you can juxtapose one large nation to 27 collective ones.  America is the sum of all its parts, and so is the EU; however much of the EU’s dynamism comes from the fact that it is made up of sovereign states – when Hill talks about the "most advanced representative democracies the world has ever seen," he is no doubt invoking countries like France or Britain, not Hungary or Greece. And the more enlightened governance of Vermont or Minnesota, cannot define America.

Hill’s assumptions about the cohesiveness of European militaries also leave questions unanswered.  Given the optimism of the proponents of European integration, it is tempting to assume a coordinated European military. But Europe has no army; the EU has 27 individual militaries, under national commands.  Regardless of the pace of European integration, sovereignty regarding military force will likely be the last to be relinquished by any European nation.  The massive European defense budget that Hill refers to is actually twenty-seven small ones (by U.S. standards), and there is not a European chain of command, wielding the might of two million European soldiers from Brussels (moreover, it is fantasy to think that the French, for instance, would allow their army to be ordered to war by anyone other than the French president).

The wars in Bosnia and Kosovo illustrated both the enduring importance of hard power and Europe’s difficulties in making decisions as a group.  While progress has been made in the decade and a half since – an increased democratization of EU decision-making at Lisbon, and the creation of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – the fact remains that the Union has no real, institutional authority over the armed forces of its constituents.  Questions about Europe’s capacity to respond are still open.

Ultimately, Hill makes many valid claims. It may very well be advantageous for the United States to learn from its allies and adapt their methods in some areas.

The barriers, however, come on the level of tradition: Many of the proposals outlined in Hill’s text go against the fabric of American thinking. A majority of Americans still don’t believe in comprehensive social action. America is a martial society; its citizens believe that their military dominance ensures their safety and the safety of others. Comprehensive welfare programs run contrary to core tenants of American political thought; to downgrade U.S. military dominance for the sake of big government is likely to remain unacceptable to most Americans for some time to come.

But there are vital lessons in Europe’s Promise from which America could benefit.  The book will help many Americans understand the institutional diversity that exists across the Atlantic. The argument that surrounds his recommendations should be one of degree, not of essence. America may not be able to copy the European model completely because of systemic, cultural or practical barriers. But in Europe’s Promise, Hill is able to explain how and why Europe works and therefore, may galvanize Americans to look in the mirror and make some changes.


Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age

by Steven Hill

University of California Press, 2010

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