November 23, 2005

Postwar Europe

In this week's New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews Tony Judt's Postwar and turns up a few surprising tidbits. Why, for instance, was Europe so peaceful and stable and prosperous after World War II? Judt credits, more than anything else it seems, the previous thirty years of what was essentially a "ruthlessly efficient" ethnic cleansing campaign:
The tidier Europe that emerged, blinking, into the second half of the twentieth century had fewer loose ends. Thanks to war, occupation, boundary adjustments, expulsions, and genocide, almost everybody now lived in their own country, among their own people. . . . The stability of postwar Europe rested upon the accomplishments of Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler. Between them, and assisted by wartime collaborators, the dictators blasted flat the demographic heath upon which the foundations of a new and less complicated continent were then laid.
Obviously that's not the only theory out there to explain Europe's postwar success, and since nationalism—what counts as one's "own people," as Judt puts it—tends to be as much an artificial construct as anything else, it's not as if "war, occupation, boundary adjustments, expulsions, and genocide" are necessary for peace and prosperity. Still, gruesome to think about, not least with an eye towards modern-day Iraq. On another note, this part—Menand's words, not Judt's—seems pretty unconvincing:
Western Europe became a place of social planning, nationalized economies, and strong states not because democratic socialism was in the Continental genes but because there were no reserves of private capital and few viable non-governmental institutions around to put the world back together again. The "European model," Judt says, was mostly an accident. There was no great political vision; necessity and pragmatism ruled the day. As Armstrong wrote, you cannot eat ideology.
That doesn't seem right. Even long prior to the war Europe had a much more expansive welfare state than the United States—see Table 2.2 of this paper; the difference in social spending across the two continents wasn't much greater in 1960 than it was in 1937.

There are a all sorts of historical reasons other than "Continental genes" to explain why the United States has always had a smaller welfare state than the "European model": until the 1930s the U.S. was dominated by a Supreme Court that protected private property and business at all costs; path dependency followed from that; there's the fact that Roosevelt and the New Dealers, along with the mainstream AFL, co-opted and effectively destroyed more radical and socialist movements in this country; there's the fact that ethnic and racial divisions fractured the American labor movement and influenced public attitudes towards welfare, etc.

Even prior to World War II, European revolutions and incidents of social unrest were very effective at spurring new social spending—especially since, given that the countries were so much less spacious, elites faced greater danger from rioting than they do in this country. There's a long tradition of it. I'm sure there were some accidental components to the creation of postwar Western European welfare states, but it wasn't all an accident.
-- Brad Plumer 2:03 PM || ||