How Germany Made Us “Conservative”

by Russell Arben Fox on May 5, 2009 · 24 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low,Region & Place

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Wichita, KS. Fifteen years ago, when my wife and I got married, we had a lot of inchoate ideas and aspirations, many of which were relatively humble, generally egalitarian, and broadly communitarian. Looking back on them now, I suppose it isn’t hard to imagine how we ended up where we are today–riding our bikes, recycling our waste, planting our garden, shopping at farmer’s markets, and generally trying to live low-key, localist lives. But the truth is, it wasn’t long talks and trips to buy eggs from a local farmer and book groups and graduate study that got us to start turning all those beliefs into practice: it was Germany. More than any other single event in our married lives, I’d say it was the three months we spent in a cramped, wonderful, upstairs apartment in a small neighborhood just outside of Kronberg–itself a city of about 20,000 people in the Taunus mountains, not far from Frankfurt–that set us on course to being the sort of weirdos who walk to church on Sunday, dragging a little wagon with all our stuff in it (hey: the kids are still young, and church meetings can run long, sometimes) behind us.

We went to Germany because of my dissertation research, and because we’d managed to get some support from the DAAD–the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, or German Academic Exchange Service–to help us pay for it. We stayed in Kronberg because it was an easy train ride away from the university libraries where I’d be doing my translating and writing, and because it was there we found a generous older couple, Horst and Ingrid Heydtmann, who rented us their upstairs room, though we had a noisy three-year-old daughter and had to be instructed several times before we finally grasped all the intricacies of the local garbage collection service. And when we came home, we brought with us…well, let me just quote a little from an old, wonderful post by Patrick Deneen, which expresses much what we learned there very well:

[In Europe,] I have been mightily impressed…by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence….[For example, in Swabia] outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a “pfand” (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.

Towns are towns: houses are generally not permitted outside the town limits due to strict zoning laws that have kept American-style suburbanization at bay. This makes for greater population density–even in the smallest towns–and hence also makes feasible vibrant regional and national public transportation systems. One enters a town defined by visible town limits, and nearly every town has at least a local baker and a local Metzger (butcher), some with even more shops, though nearly always family owned. The houses are close together, with small yards and usually close to the street. For the most part, families live above the businesses they run. Gender roles are generally traditional: husbands produce (bakers bake, butchers butcher, etc.), wives work as cashiers or farm wives, and in the off hours cook and clean. One of the ways that family businesses have been protected from the large chains is strict zoning laws that limit the building of “big box” stores outside town and city limits (yes, it’s there, but far less than in America). Another strategy has been the store closing times–a subject of fierce debate for several years. Store closing hours have traditionally favored small business owners who hire few or no employees, and who thus must be home to care for schoolchildren during the afternoons and in the early evening. Most businesses still close for several hours at lunch and at 6:30 in the evening. This allows family businesses to compete with the chains, a fact that is everywhere in evidence, and in contrast to the U.S….

In addition to the woodpiles in every yard (much of the wood comes from carefully managed forestland that has long been owned by each family), what strikes one too are the immense numbers of solar panels on many, many of the red tiled roofs. I’ve learned that there is a very effective subsidy now taking place in Germany which guarantees a high rate of return for electricity produced through solar capture. In effect, houses without solar panels are subsidizing houses that have solar. Of course, the ultimate incentive is reducing the high expenditures for energy in Germany. Roughly half the cost of gas comes in the form of an energy tax (thus, a gallon is roughly six and a half dollars here), and electricity is comparably expensive. There is a far greater degree of effort to conserve, save, and finance sustainable alternatives. In addition to the many thousands of solar panels on house and farmhouse roofs, almost everywhere one can catch sight of a wind turbine turning over and over. Of course, the vehicles are universally smaller, and no one seems to mind that they aren’t driving a Hummer. The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation, and will weather the storm of depleting oil reserves far better than we. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past fifty years. You can also get some sense why there is even resentment here toward America’s wastefulness: the Europeans pay higher prices for everything in an effort to use less, and whatever “give” there is in the worldwide production of resources is a kind of unintended sacrificial gift that many Europeans are making so that America can continue its energy gluttony. That said, the last laugh will be theirs, I think, when our civilization corrodes with increasingly worthless suburban housing tracts, our incalculable debt, and our inability to finance the American way of life….

Now, we didn’t see as much of rural western Europe as Patrick has, or even the small slice of it he reflected upon in his post of his. Nonetheless, I think back to the chimneys and small fields and orchards which dotted even our little temporary home not far from the metropolis of Frankfurt, and I can see much of truth Patrick was gesturing towards. His post, which became part of an important exchange on the nature of “conservatism” between a couple of other well-known bloggers, is one that I’ve cited more than a few times over the years, because it brilliantly crystallizes the lessons our experience in Germany taught us, especially as regards those things we want, as a family, to have and preserve.

What do we want? In a nutshell, what we want is a living environment which will enable us and our children to be able to operate at a pace and in a way not necessarily set by global trends or cosmopolitan economic imperatives, but rather choices and obligations that they can we appreciate as part and parcel of the community in which we live. That means we want to be able to live in a place that is well defined as a place…a place that is connected to the larger world, of course, but which also has some integrity apart from it, which would mean there would be a “whole” there which we, as residents of that place, could interact with and exercise some authority over. This is a rather high-falutin’ way of talking about participatory democracy and populist control, I suppose (not that being abstract ever stopped me before), but in practice it means mostly a lot of very simple things: we want local stores to shop at. We want local schools our children to attend. We want safe streets to walk down, and bike paths when we ride, and people to be there when we call on the phone, and buses and trains which can take us to further destinations with minimal pollution. In short, we don’t want to be forced into an over-reliance on cars and computers and other technologies which can make our paychecks and daily schedules and our livelihoods dependent upon decisions and calendars drawn up by corporate bosses and bureaucrats over which we have no influence. We want a calmer, slower, less expansive, less hurried, less ambitious way of life.

Which is what we got in Kronberg, soon after unpacking out suitcases. We realized that the refrigerator our apartment included was so small that multiple weekly hikes to the local marketplace–about a mile away, down a hill, past the bakery and church and school, and then around a park and up another hill. We learned that we had to be careful with the ceiling windows, because they were left open to provide circulation, and so we had to remember to close them whenever we left, in case of sudden rains. We were taught, as I mentioned above, that composting and recycling is a serious and responsible business, and that you needed to take the time to separate out your waste and put it in the right receptacles, at the right time. And most of all, we were taught what you can do when you are given a small space, and the time and support to make something beautiful with it. The Heydtmanns loved to show off their little neighborhood, with all its mountain paths leading off into the woods and alongside berry patches, and in particular they loved their little and well-tended flower garden behind their home. My weeks may have been spent sitting in libraries, concentrating on old texts, trying to expand my mind beyond my inherited frame of reference, but aside from those hours working the shelves, what was mostly happening to my wife and I was a concentrating, a focusing, a limiting, that helped make us into the sort of “conservative” people who like to keep things simple.

Which leads to another important lesson: keeping things simple often means thinking big. If you want a society with good mass transit, for example, then among other things–as has been pointed out in the excellent thread here–you’ve got to be able to develop large plans, plans that will protect and empower those collective actions–like choosing to ride a bus or a train–that will benefit everyone, rather than allowing developers and construction crews and the automobile industry and their compliant politicians to run roughshod over the common good, all in the name of “individual choice.” This is the point Patrick made above about the subsidies and taxes which support solar energy in Germany; it is a point that I have tried to make a couple of times before in regards to the economic choices that Sweden has made; and it is the point smartly made by Russell Shorto, in this fine article about how he has been helped to recognize the freedom which comes from the Dutch welfare state (hat tip, once again, to the wonderful Laura McKenna):

[Not long ago], I noted with fleeting but pleasant confusion the arrival of two mysterious payments of 316 euros (about $410) each [in my bank account]. The remarks line said “accommodation schoolbooks.” My confusion was not total. On looking at the payor–the Sociale Verzekeringsbank, or Social Insurance Bank–I nodded with sage if partial understanding. Our paths had crossed several times before. I have two daughters, you see. Every quarter, the SVB quietly drops $665 into my account with the one-word explanation kinderbijslag, or child benefit. As the SVB’s Web site cheerily informed me when I went there in bewilderment after the first deposit: “Babies are expensive. Nappies, clothes, the pram . . . all these things cost money. The Dutch government provides for child benefit to help you with the costs of bringing up your child.” Any parents living in the country receive quarterly payments until their children turn 18. And thanks to a recently passed law, the state now gives parents a hand in paying for school materials….

Such things are easy for an American to ridicule; you don’t have to be a Fox News commentator to sneer at what, in the midst of a global financial crisis, seems like Socialism Gone Wild….But there’s more to it….There is a historical base to the Dutch social-welfare system, which curiously has been overlooked by American conservatives in their insistence on seeing such a system as a threat to their values. It is rooted in religion. “These were deeply religious people, who had a real commitment to looking after the poor,” Geert Mak, a well-known Dutch author, said of his ancestors. “They built orphanages and hospitals. The churches had a system of relief, which eventually was taken over by the state. So Americans should get over ‘socialism.’ This system developed not after Karl Marx, but after Martin Luther and Francis of Assisi.”

[But then] if “socialism” is then something of a straw man–if rather than political ideology, religious values and a tradition of cooperation are what lie beneath the modern social-welfare system–maybe it’s worth asking a simple question of such a system: What does it feel like to live in it?

In 1992, Julie Phillips flew from her home in New York to visit a friend from college who lived in Amsterdam. She found that she liked the city. “You don’t know any nice, single, straight men here, do you?” she asked her friend. He said he knew one and introduced her to Jan. Julie married Jan, and Amsterdam became her home. Julie is a friend of mine, part of my American expat cabal in Amsterdam. She’s a fellow writer, and the second of her two children, Jooske, was born at home. Julie told me she isn’t a “hard-core granola type,” but giving birth at home, with the help of a midwife, is a longstanding Dutch tradition, so, she said, “I was very when-in-Rome about it.” She is now a fan of home birth. “It was incredibly pleasant,” she said. Bart (“one of the Netherlands’ only male midwives,” according to Phillips) showed up at her door at 11 in the morning. The baby was born a few hours later. “It was just me and Bart and Jan. Later, I was with the baby in the bedroom, listening to them yakking in the kitchen. I thought, Here I am with my baby in my bed, and everyone is having a nice time in my house”….

Nobody thinks the Dutch health care system is perfect. Many people complain that the new insurance costs more than the old. “That’s true, but that’s because the old system just didn’t charge enough, so society ended up paying for it in other ways,” said Anais Rubingh, who works as a general practitioner in Amsterdam. The complaint I hear from some expat Americans is that while the Dutch system covers everyone, and does a good job with broken bones and ruptured appendixes, it falls behind American care when it comes to conditions that involve complicated procedures. Hans Hoogervorst [the former minister of public health] acknowledged this–to a point. “There is no doubt the U.S. has the best medical care in the world–for those who can pay the top prices,” he said. “I’m sure the top 5 percent of hospitals there are better than the top 5 percent here. But with that exception, I would say overall quality is the same in the two countries.”

Health care is maybe the most distinguishable part of social welfare, but the more time I spend in the Netherlands, the less separable health care becomes from the whole. Which is to say that to comprehend this system is to enter a different state of mind. People have a matter-of-fact belief not in government–in my experience the Dutch complain about government as frequently as Americans do–but in society. As my Dutch teacher, Armelle Meijerink, said: “We look at the American system, and all the uninsured, and we can’t believe that a developed country chooses for that. I have a lot of American students, and when we talk about this, they always say, Yes, but we pay less tax. That’s the end of the discussion for them. I guess that’s a pioneer’s attitude.”

Now, I don’t want to dismiss that pioneer attitude: it built my country, after all. And it’s not as though the lessons we learned in Germany were so obviously true to everyone around us: one family we got to know well through our church there, a family with three children, were desperate to move to America–they wanted to buy a house of their own, with a yard the kids could play in, rather than just trucking them to the local (though admittedly, very nice) park and contributing to the community garden for the next twenty years of their lives while they saved up for something that was prohibitively expensive for young people at that stage of their careers. They looked at our living experience in America, and they envied us, and the genuine and virtuous desires behind that envy are worth contemplating. I don’t want to give up entirely on the undisciplined individual freedom and sometimes destructive economic opportunity which our tree-slashing, go-at-it-alone pioneer ancestors bequeathed us with; probably no one who has ever actually lived in America would. But then again, I can’t help but think that if more people could see the sort of compromises which many of the socialist countries of Western Europe have made, and the equally genuine and virtuous “positive” local freedoms they make possible, few people would want to dismiss those “conservative” lessons entirely out of hand either.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John Médaille May 5, 2009 at 8:29 am

The great irony here is that this functional conservatism is discovered within a social welfare state. Indeed, Germany is perhaps the oldest socialistic state in Europe; its socialism was imposed by that most conservative of statesman, Otto von Bismark. He choose socialism as the only way of preserving the ancien regime. That regime drowned itself in blood on the fields of Northern France, but the socialism survived.

Conservatism has always functioned well as a way of life and poorly as a political ideology. American political conservatism tends to be indistinguishable from economic liberalism. The most “right-wing” form of such conservatism in this country is libertarian, which is just an alternate spelling of “liberalism.” I think one of the major contributions that FPR can make is to explore the conservative surrender to liberalism and develop real alternatives.

avatar Dan Sullivan May 5, 2009 at 9:43 am

Thank you, Prof. Fox (and Deneen), for your observations of Europe’s attributes. I lived and worked in provincial France (northwest and southeast) and London for five years in the mid-1990′s, and can corroborate the superior (in many ways) quality of life. Europe in general enjoys a cultural density that America never had, and it seems that “bank and capital of nations and of ages” has somewhat mitigated many of the pernicious affects of broad and deep statism. I wonder, though, about the demography bomb. No matter how many payments from the government Dutch parents receive, they are insufficient to encourage either marriage or reproduction. According to UN stats, deaths already exceed births by 2 to 1 in much of Europe. Within forty years (unless trends dramatically change), the native population of Europe will shrink by a third. How will these countries sustain the current social welfare structures? Immigration seems a problematic and inadequate response. Why haven’t the many attractive features of European life produced growing or at least stable populations?

avatar Hugo May 5, 2009 at 10:41 am

what we want is a living environment which will enable us and our children to be able to operate at a pace and in a way not necessarily set by global trends or cosmopolitan economic imperatives, but rather choices and obligations that they can we appreciate as part and parcel of the community in which we live.

That’s as good an encapsulation of the crunchy con manifesto as I’ve read, Russell. (And I came to you from First Things, btw.)

avatar H.C. Johns May 5, 2009 at 11:21 am

Another aspect of this story worth mentioning (particularly in light of Medaille’s column yesterday) is Germany’s restrictions on the lending practices that fuel consumerism in the United States. Credit cards, along with a whole host of other financial implements, are much more highly regulated and are built on the assumption that people are not capable of being responsible with other people’s money. This is grounded in an extremely conservative outlook, but implemented through socialist regulation. And as Medaille pointed out above, its yet another way in which the label of conservative really doesn’t fit as an ideological position.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 5, 2009 at 11:46 am

An interesting essay, Mr. Fox. Thank you! :)

What I’ve observed in my travels and living abroad is that the German urge to preserve and use resources wisely has little to do with political conservatism and more to do with the ancient values of husbandry and conservation that are present in all traditional and agrarian societies. Also present is the traditional value of “tribe/Clan” over “Individuals” which had been practiced as the norm until the rise of the Industrial Revolution. It is still the norm in un-(under-) developed countries. Family and tribe trump individuals and “outsiders.”

The German use of “Socialism” to ensure that members of society are properly fed and housed is part of this traditional communal ethos. The German state has chosen to use fines and subsidies to ensure more cooperation with recycling and reduced energy use. Compare it with our government which gave away land to encourage the settling and farming of our midwest.

(I have often wondered how much actual collusion took place in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries between the “media,” the land developers/speculators and the government(s) in power to settle this country. I’m sure that the discovery of Gold in California and the inhabitation by “civilized people” of the vast unsettled tracts of the prairies was encouraged to insure that Britain or Mexico didn’t acquire the territory..among other reasons.)

Bismark saw the use of “social security” as a means to thwart the advance of “Communist” ideas. The “Communal” (some have called it “Socialist”) ideas had been floating around for centuries between the classes and within the classes of citizens. Some would call it Noblesse oblige. In fact, in European countries where every citizen is given an allotment; the wealthy are presumed to have an obligation to give back to society in the form of charity, or a gift to the arts, education, etc..

During the French and Russian revolutions; the rural peasantry supported the establishment. It was the “enlightened” and “educated” who wished to overthrow society. Marx was concerned with the proletariat; not the peasant. After all, the peasant (most of the time; if not interferred with, or during fammine) could feed his family. The peasantry were not “wage slaves”…until they became “comrades” ;)

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 5, 2009 at 11:56 am

“Famine”….Arragh!

Mr Fox, Mr. Deneen and all…

I have to say that Germany is a delightful place. Germans (for the most part) are so clean, orderly and polite! If I had to live in Europe, The Free State of Bavaria would be my choice. :)

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 5, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Great comments, everyone; thank you for them.

John,

Conservatism has always functioned well as a way of life and poorly as a political ideology.

Quite true. This is what I often say about “communitarianism”–which, depending on how you use the word, covers much of the same ground as conservatism. We are communal beings, we build our communities up from the cultural, linguistic, historical and religious resources around us, and that means some things need to be conserved if our communal potentials and virtues are to be realized. The defense of community is–or at least should be–the ground for all subsequent political or ideological thinking.

Dan, thanks in particular for your testimony to the benefits of the social compromises which make life in much of Western Europe so beneficial to family and collective life, as well as your timely and sharp question about Europe’s demographic future. I tread carefully when it comes to speculation about the connection between social welfare, secularism, and declining natality, but no doubt there is a connection there. I’d like to think that socially concerned restrictions and opportunities are not at the root of the cause behind these different trends in Europe, but I suppose I have to be open to the possibility of being proven wrong.

Hugo, thanks very much for the kind words! It’s always a pleasure to see you around. (Though the entry which brought you here from First Things seems to have disappeared. Hmmm…did they link to it before they’d read it all the way through, or perhaps before they realized I voted for Obama?)

H.C., thanks for the insight about financial regulation in Germany. It’s a great additional point, one that I wasn’t aware of. Chalk up one more victory for wise, careful, collective action helping to keep the rapacious and unwise side of individuals from doing too much damage to the whole.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 5, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Esmeralda, thanks for your comments as well! Very insightful bit of history there. I wish we’d been able to spend more time in Bavaria and southern Germany while we lived there, but our funds were scarce. Oh well–with luck, someday we’ll be able to make to that part of the world. (And yes, the Germans were, for the most part, wonderful folk.)

avatar D.W. Sabin May 5, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Yes, the distinct change from city to agricultural rural landscape in Europe is amazing. Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy…they all retain a sense of genuine article in both their urban and rural expressions. Sprawl has hit some places and it is always amazing to me to see some article or brief news snippet when visiting France or Spain or Italy about how some group thinks it important to adopt a more American schedule but by and large, there is generally more of a sense of respect for their public places.

When the Government of the United States decided to hitch its war wagon to the Military -Industrial Complex, it was forced to abandon the kinds of civic investment that Europe was allowed, once freed from its own defensive responsibilities. We talk a good line of hardy independence but have created a generation of arch-dependents who worship a State that exalts power but schizophrenically rebukes itself with regularity . There is so much bait and switch going on that the public begins to lose track of where the bait begins and the switch stops. As such, we are never able to actually arrive at a conversation….let alone a consensus of what kind of ethical and built environment we want besides the constant droning of “individual freedom”. Regulations become ends in themselves in this country , never a fundamental reason shall they meet. Laws are then promulgated on who moans the loudest or donates to the political campaign the most. Because of the rootlessness we have adopted and the erosion of clan it entails, everything is essentially a team sport of popular cultural creation and we cheer the spectacle and think it a community and it is indeed one ..a vicarious community.

Personally, I want to be left alone when I want to be left alone but find a stimulating community when I want that. As someone who clearly detests the current …what is it? oh yes, “government”…I harbor sympathies toward the Libertarians Mr. Medaille abjures but I also detect no small whiff of grapeshot in their rhetoric ….of the kind that makes last stands against itself because it has disdained community and communal action for so long it thinks any communal action is the enemy. We don’t seem to be able to find that balance in this country over the noise of marketing cant. The great God “Efficiency” is paramount and it’s avenging angel “External costs” does the dirty work. As Toqueville observed, physicality and motion replaces introspection and sentiment. “Show Me the Money”…a not altogether bad credo to be applied where prudent becomes the end all of cultural expression

There is no organized force with enough credibility to actually assess the important lessons of the current “crisis” and so we miss a sterling opportunity to actually re-direct into a more productive balance of both independent liberty and communal joy or love and so will miss the potential gargantuan…and truly authentic and egalitarian economic productivity of just such a redirection. Instead, like …who was it…? Henry Adams ? …somebody help me out here….who suggested that in times of great change, the individual citizen is smashed “like insects”. Keep an eye out for that bottom of a foot coming at you from that place which likes to remind you it’s protecting you as it blows up places several time zones distant. It is called a Conserviliberal and it has two heads and a bottomless appetite with one orifice trailing a plume of empty rhetoric.

avatar Doug K May 5, 2009 at 1:53 pm

The problem with American political conservatism is that it’s not conservative. Their religion is a perverse Protestantism, abandoning entirely centuries of orthodox Christian traditions; their science denies evidence, abandoning the hard-won knowledge of centuries of endeavour; their politics most recently overthrew habeas corpus and the Bill of Rights. This is wild-eyed radicalism, not conservatism.

I am interested to see the “Letter from a Traditional Conservative” states the fundamental principle of conservatism as “Man is intrinsically a social or political animal; his individual identity is formed by, tied to, and fulfilled only in, community.”
This plus God is precisely the Orthodox Christian belief.

As a moderate social democrat, I’ve always considered myself a conservative too: but that’s not comprehensible in the US context. Thank you for this, it gives one to think.

I wrote about a short German sojourn here,
http://dkretzmann.googlepages.com/darmstadt2004
which echoes many of Patrick’s notes.

avatar polistra May 5, 2009 at 3:55 pm

You may be overestimating the go-it-alone-ness of our pioneer era. For example, here’s a description of the early days of Emporia from the WPA Kansas Guide:

===

“Equipped with railroad transportation and situated amid a fertile farming region, Emporia thereafter prospered as a trading center. Gas for illumination was installed in 1880; streetcars drawn by mules were put into operation the following year; and in 1885 an electric light plant was established.”

===

This was 25 years after the first white settlement, and contemporary with the epitome of the Wild West in Dodge City. The cowboy era was actually quite short, and most cities were trying to achieve a European-style regard for community life, with utilities and transportation available to all. (I’m pretty sure the founders of Emporia wouldn’t have regarded the streetcar riders as “parasites”, as one commenter elsewhere on FPR said yesterday… the Ayn Rand version of go-it-alone-ness is a very recent phenomenon!)

avatar limitedgovernment May 5, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Any time comparisons are made between the United States and a European country, I like to do a quick comparison of the countries.

Germany has approximately 80 million people in an area of approximately 138,000 sq. miles. Germany is a mostly homogeneous society – 91.5% of the population is German.

The United States has approximately 300 million people in an area of approximately 3.8 million square miles.

The United States of today is much different today than it was a century ago. In the last century the federal government has grown from 2.5% of GDP to 20% (and rising) of GDP. The federal government also built the interstates. Most of the motorways in Europe were build away from city centers. In the United States, many of the interstates bisected cities.

It is not coincidental that the sense of place has been lost as power has been centralized in Washington DC.

avatar limitedgovernment May 5, 2009 at 10:32 pm

I think I recall reading that the GI Bill after World War II provided loans for new houses but not for renovations. In addition to contributing to sprawl by the manner that it created the interstates, the federal government also contributed to sprawl by the funding it provide to veterans after the war.

Since Germany is getting credit for making the author conservative, and since Germany was responsible for the war, Germany should take part of the blame for creating sprawl and destroying place in the United States.

avatar Richard May 6, 2009 at 12:11 pm

I lived in Germany for almost twenty years–in upper Bavaria. May I say that what impressed me about the Germans was their sense of place and rootedness in their communities; and also their sense of familial obligations–aged grandparents frequently lived with their children, grandchildren as a matter of course. OK, I admit it, I was also impressed by the beer, especially the Heffeweissen.

avatar Mark k May 6, 2009 at 6:58 pm

Ok… Spare me. I don’t WANT to live like that. It’s calcified, unchanging, locking you into generations of sameness. It would be death to my soul.

I do NOT want to live in town. I want to live where I have no visible neighbors. And we have a country filled with vast empty spaces, there’s no reason on earth cram us into elbow-smaking closeness.

Perhaps Germans think that’s fine. I don’t. I would hate it with every ounce of my being. To be so constricted by a society would drive me insane. It defies the very essence of me, which is to be able to change, adapt, renew, move on, innovate, explore.

You all miss how much that has benefitted our nation and our future and our past. We’re personally strong and independent, because we can be, because many of us are. That’s why we can’t be knocked down, that’s why dictators do not arise (or haven’t yet), and why we carry our own guns.

I do not need, nor do I want a check for my kid’s books or diapers or clothes. I need to be tempered and hardened by the desperate struggle to survive. We ALL need to be beaten down and then claw, struggle, and reach our way back by our own efforts. We need to be a nation of durable, tough, resilient individuals who cannot be defeated by hardship. We need to have to learn to be “Me against the world” and not be cowed or live in fear of hardship or disaster.

That’s what makes Americans who they are. That’s why we did so much in such a short period of time compared to Europe. And we need to be that tough and hard again.

avatar limitedgovernment May 7, 2009 at 10:02 am

Mark k
You make some good points. I also think that there are some things we could learn from how things are done in Germany. If we compare the countries, we have approximately 4 times the population and approximately 27.5 times the area. There are some options for ways of life that are available to many Americans that are not an option for most Germans.

That being said, when it comes to how cities/towns work, many American cities/towns have been designed/redesigned around the automobile. In Germany, many of the cities/towns are older, and they have not been changed significantly with the advent of the automobile. I would not try to convince every American to live in towns and cities, but for those who do live in towns and cities, we could learn something from German cities/towns as we develop/redevelop them.

At the same time, as we have created government entitlements, we are losing much of the spirit of the “rugged individualist.” Because of the size of our country, there is room for all kinds of way of life. However, regardless of whether an American chooses to live in an urban area, in a small city, in a small town, or in a rural area, I believe that the way of life for each will be improved if we begin to remove money/power from the federal government and return it to people.

avatar Mark T. Mitchell May 7, 2009 at 11:10 am

Here’s a piece on MSNBC about a German family with four kids. Both parents are out of work, but the recession is not bothering them because the government is footing the bill.

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30363790/

Is this a bad thing?

avatar limitedgovernment May 7, 2009 at 12:58 pm

Yes, the government footing the bill is a bad thing. It leads to ignorant statements like this:

“We don’t pay anything for any of (our) medicines, for doctor’s visits, nothing,” Sarah said, adding that she worried about her sister in Detroit, who had had several periods without health insurance.

When the government takes our money to pay for things that the politicians decide we need, we lose the opportunity to do with our money what we consider a priority. Consider Social Security (Socialist Insecurity) and Medicare. The combined “contributions” from an employer and employee are 15.3% of a workers wages/salary. Consider what a person could do if they received that money instead of the government taking it.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

avatar Cecelia May 7, 2009 at 11:20 pm

The Germans, as per recent NYT article, are so tidy they actually have local authorities which approve children’s names. Their courts have ruled that no child may have a name of more than three. Parents are given a book to help them in their name choices. Recently a family who wished to name their child “Anderson” was refused permission to do so because “Anderson” is a surname.

A quote from a German official justifying this: the state has a responsibility to protect people from idiotic forenames.”

I think this may be taking civic order a bit too far.

avatar Dan Sullivan May 8, 2009 at 8:51 am

Prof. Fox (or anyone else inclined to weigh in),

In response to your statement: “I’d like to think that socially concerned restrictions and opportunities are not at the root of the cause behind these different trends in Europe, but I suppose I have to be open to the possibility of being proven wrong.”

I do not mean to imply by my reference to the demographic bomb that “socially concerned restrictions and opportunities” are the root cause. I’m merely asking an honest question of an informed audience: despite the strong communal dynamic I have personally witnessed in most of Europe, a dynamic I find sadly lacking or at least in a state of advanced deterioration in much of America, Europeans are choosing to forego marriage and children at unprecedented rates.

To make matters worse, the European welfare state, generally speaking, is constructed much as Social Security in this country – the young pay for the old. Within one generation, there will be too few of the former to pay for the latter, and due to the severity of the birth dearth, no reasonable adjustment of taxes or benefits can fill the gap. The problem is much more severe than the insolvency of SSA and Medicare.

Neither the consequences of this impending crisis nor the currently generous payments and subsidies from some governments to encourage reproduction (marriage optional, of course), nor the strong communal dynamic is enough to promote family formation to any significant degree. Why not? Where is the weakness in the European communal dynamic? It’s complicated, I’m sure.

Could it be that the state has so thoroughly insinuated itself into otherwise private institutions (again, family first and foremost, but also established churches, etc.) that it has left them desiccated, mere husks resembling their traditional form but devoid of any substance? This seems to me to be an essential question for communitarians/traditionalists, etc. , one that must answered, not just asked. As attractive as it seems on the surface (I’m referring to the communal dynamic and human-scale living, not the leviathan), there is something catastrophically wrong with the European model. We can praise its attributes only if we admit and attempt to diagnose its flaws. Otherwise, we’re headed down the same suicidal path.

avatar limitedgovernment May 8, 2009 at 10:37 am

I think that the answer to the first question in the last paragraph is “yes.” Take giving in the United States. Because the government has create welfare, many people think it is the government’s responsibility to take care of the poor. If they pay their taxes, then they are doing their part. The situation in many churches is not much different. People give tithes and offerings and then expect “the church” to do the work of taking care of the needy.

Before big government and in the days of small churches, people tended (there are of course exceptions) to take care of themselves, their families, and their communities. The church was involved, but most churches were smaller and had smaller budgets, so the members of the church had to get directly involved in helping.

avatar Dan Sullivan May 8, 2009 at 1:01 pm

In response to Prof. Mitchell’s post:

“Here’s a piece on MSNBC about a German family with four kids. Both parents are out of work, but the recession is not bothering them because the government is footing the bill.”

I wouldn’t go so far as limitedgovernment and say that it is “wrong,” a properly ordered society should make provision for economic difficulties to protect the vulnerable, but I rejoin limitedgovernment when I say that handing government that function is unwise and counterproductive from a communal perspective. Government intervention depersonalizes the expression of need; demanding a check from a functionary has an entirely different quality from asking your family, friends, neighbors, church, or town. The Depersonalization undermines moral hazard and quickly deteriorates into entitlement. The government welfare apparatus is also subject to political manipulation in a way that local sources of benevolence generally are immune.

Robert Nisbet wrote extensively on how the modern state competes with community for function and authority in the lives of individuals. The more function government can strip from communities, in this case economic support during economic difficulties, the greater its authority and relevance in the lives of its citizens. The traditional sources of benevolence from which the function has been stripped lose authority and relevance, and wither.

Circling around to limitedgovernment and churches, its seems to me that the European model suffers from a surfeit of state intervention and a deficit of religious practice and its attendant institutions. The demographic crisis indicates to me a moral/spiritual crisis more than a material one. We’re back to a word Nisbet frequently used: anomie – purposelessness.

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