Think (and Read) before You Blog: A Response to Michael Sean Winters
Religion & Liberty Online

Think (and Read) before You Blog: A Response to Michael Sean Winters

Over at the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters makes some comments about my book Becoming Europe based on a review he had read by Fr. C.J. McCloskey. Here are the most pertinent of his observations:

I know that American exceptionalism lives on both the left and the right, but when did the right become so Europhobic? And why? National Catholic Register has a review of a new book by the Acton Institute’s Samuel Gregg entitled Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, & How America Can Avoid a European Future. I confess, come August, when Europeans sensibly take the month off and head to the beach or the mountains for time with their families, I am envious of them, not scornful. When I look at Europe’s lower rates of income inequality, I am envious, not scornful. When I look at the creative ways Germany minimized unemployment during the recent economic downturn, I was deeply envious.

Of course, given the fact that Gregg works for the libertarian Acton Institute, where the false god of the market is worshipped day in and day out, it should not surprise that he misses the Catholic and Christian roots of the modern social welfare state as it exists in Europe.  And the fact that Rev. C. John McCloskey misunderstands the Christian roots of the modern social welfare state shows the degree to which some members of the Catholic clergy have bought into what can best be described as the Glenn Beck narrative of the relationship of faith and culture.

Alas, Mr. Winters apparently hasn’t actually read the book. Because if he had, he would know that Becoming Europe (1) notes several good economic things happening in Europe (such as in Germany and Sweden) and (2) addresses at considerable length the various Catholic and Christian contributions to the development of European welfare states and the European social model more generally. In the case of the latter, I’d direct his attention to Chapters 2 and 3 of Becoming Europe where these matters are discussed extensively. The point is that it is always prudent to perhaps read a book before venturing criticisms of its arguments.

Then there is the label of “libertarian.” Again, if Mr. Winters took a moment to read a few of my writings, he’d know that, in books such as On Ordered Liberty, I‘ve articulated critiques of libertarian thought, especially with regard to the way that libertarian thinkers approach, for instance, moral questions. Figures such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman have many interesting economic insights. But I have always viewed their philosophical positions (which include, among others, commitments to nominalism, epicurism, utilitarianism, social-evolutionism, and social contractarianism) to be less-than-adequate. In many ways, their conceptions of the human person are virtually indistinguishable from modern liberals such as John Rawls.

The problem is that some people think that support for free markets and limited government means you must be a libertarian. Yet the correlation does not follow. There are, for example, plenty of self-identified conservatives (many of them, incidentally, are orthodox Catholics) who support free markets and limited government, who are critical of many aspects of the modern welfare state, but who dispute the hedonistic and nominalist accounts of human anthropology that many libertarians share with modern liberals.

A good example is the free market economist (and convinced Christian) Wilhelm Röpke. Not only was he one of the people responsible for post-war West Germany’s economic liberalization which lead it to become modern Europe’s economic powerhouse. He was also very skeptical of libertarian philosophical thinking—so much so that many contemporary libertarians are deeply critical of Röpke’s decidedly-Christian moral and cultural views. Indeed, I’ve suggested on several occasions that, philosophically-speaking, the case for economic freedom and limited government requires far more robust support than the arguments presented by many self-identified libertarians.

As for “Europhobia,” I lived in Europe and studied at a European university for several years. If I was a “Europhobe,” I would hardly have done so. But since when does criticism of the European social model make one a “Europhobe?” Of course there are some people who think that criticism of the European Union means you must be Europhobic. But that’s another non sequitur. The European civilization that most of the European left have spent decades trying to denigrate and dismantle existed long before the EU (which itself is disinclined to acknowledge Christianity’s indispensible contribution to Europe’s development). And Europe will still be around long after the European social model has collapsed under the weight of its own internal contradictions.

Meanwhile it’s worth considering that, as Becoming Europe illustrates at length, many European nations are textbook examples of what happens when social democracy is taken to its logical conclusion (as cities like Chicago and states like California are discovering). Since 2008, some of these nations have suffered double even triple-dip recessions. Even the World Bank (no champion of economic liberalization) has recognized the problems associated with many European nations’ absurdly-rigid labor markets. The regulatory framework of labor laws in many European states not only locks out immigrants, young people and the unskilled from labor markets (or condemns them to a life of cobbling together part-time contracts); it actually discourage businesses from hiring people on a full-time basis.

Then there is the fact that, for all its rhetoric about justice, the European social model is one that favors those with access to political power (such as businesses who prefer corporate welfare to competition and trade union leaders who have zero-interest in the welfare of the unemployed), while punishing those who don’t enjoy the same access to power (immigrants, young people, the unemployed, entrepreneurs lacking political connections, etc). Also worth mentioning are the disastrous unemployment levels in many European nations, especially youth unemployment which is over 50% in countries like Greece and Spain. There is a reason why, since 2012, there has been an exodus of tens of thousands of EU citizens—primarily young professionals—searching for work to Latin America, North America, Australia, Asia, and non-EU European countries.

Should we not be critical of these problems? Should we ignore the mind-boggling scale of corruption in countries like Italy and Greece? Should we not be conscious that someone as committed to the European integration project as the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas has described the present-day EU as embodying “a kind of post-democratic, bureaucratic rule.” Should we not be attentive to the fact that most European countries’ demographic future is not only vindicating the prophetic nature of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, but that their population preferences (which they incidentally seem intent on forcing Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians to accept) are effectively rendering un-viable the economic foundations of European welfare-states? And should we not recognize the fact that those European countries which have recently engaged in some degree of economic liberalization (such as Germany and Sweden) are the ones weathering the current storm much better than, say, France, Italy, and Greece. All these facts, and more, are detailed in Becoming Europe.

A long time ago, I was taught by a wise Jesuit that it’s never very prudent to venture opinions on subjects you don’t know very much about. In the interests of constructive discussion, it would be helpful if others did the same.

Samuel Gregg

Samuel Gregg is the Friedrich Hayek Chair in Economics and Economic History at the American Institute for Economic Research, an affiliate scholar at the Acton Institute, and author, most recently, of The Next American Economy: Nation, State, and Markets in an Uncertain World.