As Europe is rocked by the Greek financial crisis, which seems likely to spread to additional European states, it may be worth asking why anyone would see in European politics a model for the United States. Yet this is exactly the position of America’s political left, which looks approvingly at Europe’s health care systems offering universal coverage. Now that Obamacare has been enacted, moreover, some progressive voices are already calling for a European-style Value Added Tax (VAT) to pay for it and the other ballooning entitlement programs run by Washington. The left continues to press America to look ever more like a European centrally administered social welfare state.
Most Americans—not just conservatives—are uneasy with the European model. This is not just a matter of national pride or misplaced chauvinism. There is something about the European model that most Americans distrust, though it is less easy to say exactly what that is. The reasons reach far back in the American story.
American colonists retained much from their European countries of origin. Their languages, customs, manners, arts and architecture, and the philosophical concepts of toleration and liberty were all imported from Europe. There was scarcely a department of life that did not owe much to European sources. Except one: politics. America was founded to be different from Europe. The earliest settlers came to America to escape European political persecution and to realize ambitions that were not possible in Europe. Even when perpetuating European customs in their legislatures and townships, colonists never did so slavishly but always with a distinctly American slant. And when the Framers wrote the Constitution to give form to the newly independent country, they aimed deliberately to produce a political system that was decidedly non-European. Americans achieved a distinctive political system and saw European politics as more to be pitied than envied. So deep was this strain that it would not occur to any serious American for a full century afterward to borrow from Europe’s politics.
What did the Constitution’s Framers find so objectionable about European politics? What were they trying to avoid in creating their “experiment” in governance? Their first major innovation—which impelled the Constitutional Convention—was the creation of an American union. The Framers argued that sovereign European states’ living side by side with one another was the cause of frequent wars. The Framers’ remedy—the solution to the frequent temptation to war among rival sovereign states—was a union of states. Through the innovation of union, the Framers aimed to minimize the danger of war between the states. They further argued that union would prevent European nations from fostering rivalries between the American states (a view whose truth would be confirmed by England’s assistance to the Confederacy during the Civil War). Several decades later, when the United States became stronger, it expanded its opposition to the importation of European politics to the entire Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine made good on Alexander Hamilton’s vow to “teach that assuming brother moderation.”
Union, however, was not an end in itself, but a means to achieve a second and deeper American objective: the protection of individual liberties over and against the government. Europe knew well enough how governments could control the people; as Madison observed of government, the Framers’ task was to “oblige it to control itself.” The constant possibility of war led European regimes to create standing armies and centralize political power. Such centralized power was destructive of the very liberties the Framers believed government should protect. England’s insularity gave it space within which a partial system of liberty could survive. It was the purpose of the Framers to extend this protection so as to permit a far wider space within which liberty might thrive. Within this space, a very non-European practice—indeed, an anti-European practice, the separation of central government powers—was devised in order to oblige the government to control itself.
Alexis de Tocqueville spoke clearly to the priority of liberty in the American case:
In America it is freedom that is old, and equality is comparatively new. The opposite obtains in Europe, where equality introduced by the absolute power of the kings and under their eyes had already penetrated into the habits of the people long before the idea of liberty had entered their thoughts.
How can he say this? Weren’t European nations and principalities everywhere characterized by royalty and aristocracy, producing a stratified class system? Was it not these very social distinctions that the Framers aimed to prevent, explicitly prohibiting titles of nobility in Article One of the Constitution?