European Versus American Way of Life

25 08 2009

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has published a blog post entitled:  “Touristic Bias: Why Americans Overrate Europe, and Europeans Underrate America”.

His basic argument is that while a typical European city centre is more picturesque than the average American city, Americans have a better quality of life than people in Europe. Most Europeans, he points out, don’t live in tourist destinations like the Left Bank in Paris. I thought that Caplan’s article was interesting but a little short on statistics, especially when you consider that he is an economist. The absence of really basic stats like life expectancy and the murder rate is really noticeable. Some of the people who commented on his blog replied to Caplan by citing figures that show the American-style suburban car culture that Caplan praises is actually pretty widespread in many European countries. For instance, a reader in Sweden pointed out that some European countries have roughly as many cars per capita as the US (500 per 1000 inhabitants). This fits with my own observations: the UK has massive Tesco supermarkets that are roughly the same size as any Wal-Mart, drive-thrus, and roadside restaurants that are basically the same as the US chains. The cars are bit smaller, but car culture is entrenched. Outside of London and a few other the UK’s other big cities, it would be rare to see a man of working age on a bus during the middle of the day, which would also be the case in the US or any other New World Anglo-Saxon country.

When I read the column, I was left wondering whether Caplan has ever lived and worked in a EU country. I checked his CV and turns out he hasn’t, so I’m not certain why he thinks he is more qualified to write this article than the zillions of academics who have lived and paid mortgages in multiple countries. (I would be interested to hear the Australian perspective on this debate). I have a lot of respect of Caplan and his research, but I think that this particular piece is poorly thought out. Not his best work. A powerful piece of evidence that Caplan could have cited in support of his position but which he did not is that the most EU countries, including the UK, experience net emigration to the USA (i.e., more Britons move to the US each year than Americans came to Britain). I’m perplexed as to why Caplan didn’t cite this data, which could have bolstered his case.

Another big problem with Caplan’s piece is that Europe, unlike the United States, consists of many radically different countries (Sweden versus Moldova). I know that some people like to talk about the EU as a sort of United States of Europe, but it’s not a single country. If you want a fairer comparison, contrast life in the EU with life in the three NAFTA countries: the gap between Manhattan and southern Mexico is probably as great as the different between London and, say, Tirana.

The other flaw with Caplan’s piece, which appears on a pro-free-market or libertarian website is that he appears to suggesting that because life in the market-oriented USA is better than life in the more socialist EU, this somehow proves that deregulation and the free market are the way to go. (He doesn’t say this explicitly, but this appears to be the thrust of his article).

There are several problems with this argument. 1) Caplan hasn’t proven than life for Americans in better than life for (West) Europeans. 2) Life could be better in the US simply because of lower population densities rather than because of differences in how societies organize themselves. New Zealand, Australia, and Canada are essentially more socialist versions of the USA (wide open spaces with a bit more social spending). 3) I’m not convinced that all Europeans countries are less “free” economically than the USA. Some EU countries have policies that American libertarians admire. The USA can be very statist in some areas and some of most prosperous EU countries (e.g., Denmark) are actually quite market-oriented, at least according to the measures used by an international organization of free-market think tanks.

Update: Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Magazine has posted some thoughts on Caplan’s piece. (McArdle’s piece is better thought out than that of Caplan and the resulting discussion thread contains posts of higher average quality, in my opinion).  I liked the fact that she mentioned Toronto in her post for several reasons. First, I’m from there. Second, bringing a third territory, in this case (Canada) into the discussion helps us to clarify our thinking about the differences between the US and “Europe”. It is hard to compare two thing unless you have at least one other thing as reference point – this is true in geometry and true when comparing countries.



2 responses

26 08 2009
Kevin Tennent

Seems to me we’ve been having this discussion since the Pilgrim Fathers pitched up in the future US. I really don’t see why people can’t simply accept that different places have different climates and factor costs and that drives the way society is constructed. Having read Caplan’s blog I don’t see any political undercurrent there – his idea of a good place to live (and that is just his place to live) is clearly a big house with a big garden within an easy drive of the nearest WalMart and IHOP. Thats fine, but presumably being American that’s what he is conditioned to expect to be a good place to live in. He shouldn’t ignore the fact that others may look for other facilities, such as leisure opportunities that don’t involve buying cheap housewares or eating junk food. While its also true that all Europeans don’t live in a tiny tenement in Glasgow, some people may actually prefer a smaller house as its easier to keep in good order. Some don’t even want to own their own house, but prefer a landlord to come and fix things for them. A car is another thing to worry about too. Most people with an ounce of common sense hate driving walking distances, unless they have things to carry.

I’d say my main experience of the US is that public space is not considered important there in the same way as in Europe or Australia, therefore people drive to every building rather than parking in a communal car park and walking between them. This also changes the US attitude to public transport, or minority transport as it should probably be called. Just another example of the many things that make the US uniquely different, because it always is, but because he’s American Caplan thinks this is normal.

A parting shot would be – on the subject of the poor, I assume Caplan lives in the Mid-West, or somewhere west of DC anyway – because when I watch The Wire I see poor people living in terrace houses no bigger than the ones in the County Durham mining village in which I grew up. And only the drug bosses drive cars.

27 08 2009

“presumably being American that’s what he is conditioned to expect to be a good place to live in”

That’s a good point. I think that much of this debate comes down to simple personal preferences.

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