Back when I was an expat blogger, I had a series called Sawdust and Planks, a reference to the admonishment to pull the plank out of our own eyes before pointing out the speck of dust in others’ eyes. My husband Jim and I have lived abroad many times and had long noticed how everyone would quickly criticise American policies without comparing their own. Racism, sexism, xenephobia, prudishness, poor eating habits – name a vice, Americans were the standard.
So I almost cheered in my office chair when I saw Fraser Nelson’s recent article in The Spectator. He ran the numbers and found that the UK would be America’s 50th poorest state, barely edging out Mississippi to avoid last place. He concludes:
In America, poverty is more obvious due to white flight – a phenomenon we just didn’t have. …
Britain has no space for white flight; people are forced to live closer together. And Brits fool themselves into thinking that proximity has brought cohesion. In fact, Britain has developed a new kind of segregation: keeping the poor cooped up in council estates, a stone’s throw from the posh parts – yet creating a very high welfare barrier which stops them properly breaking out. Brits may be appalled at America’s gap in black-white life expectancy. But the Liverpool-SW1 life expectancy gap is just as big; Brits just don’t get upset about it….
No one beats up America better than Americans. They openly debate their inequality, conduct rigorous studies about it, argue about economics vs culture as causes. Their universities study it, with a calibre of analysis not found in Britain. Americans get so angry about educational inequality that they make films like Waiting for Superman. And the debate is so fierce that the rest of the world looks on, and joins in lamenting America’s problems. A shame: Brits would do better to get a little angrier at their own problems back in the UK.
Fraser covered the implications for the UK in the comparison, but as an American, my concern has been that in our self critique we hold up Europe as the shining example of what we want to be, which means the entire US is aspiring to Mississippi. We aren’t reaching for new heights, we are digging well below our average. A modicum of critical reasoning applied to US vs [country of choice] comparisons reveals that there aren’t many standards from abroad to which Americans can aspire.
Daniel Hannan hit this theme in his 2010 book, The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America. In particular, Hannan argues:
I’m not saying that everything in the US is good and everything in the EU is bad, far from it. It’s just that the aspects of Euro-politics which your rulers seem most intent on copying are those which have demonstrably failed: the centralisation of power, higher state spending, welfare dependency, excessive regulation.
There is no reason the UK should rank anywhere near Mississippi. Mississippi has no major ports or thriving industry. Yes, it is on the busy Mississippi River, but it doesn’t have the mouth, that’s the bottom of Louisiana’s L shape. Mississippi doesn’t get the river ports, just the silt, as the state’s small stretch of coastline starts about where the river dumps out of the Port of New Orleans. Therefore, Mississippi doesn’t have Florida’s blue water beaches to bring in tourists. That is, by geography, Mississippi was never going to be a powerhouse US state.
But by the numbers the UK looks like Mississippi. And Hannan is right, centralisation of power, higher state welfare speeding, and excessive regulation are to blame. But not simply because of the how much money is spent. It’s not a budget problem. It is an attitude problem.
A few years ago, my husband and I took the Life in the UK test. The study guide reads like a help manual for new immigrants to the UK – what life in the UK can do for them. There are some civics, but the topics are very basic and touristy, such as the Prime Minister’s address and how one can get tickets to watch Parliament. The bulk of the study material covers PC topics like minority populations and women’s suffrage, and social welfare topics like how to use the NHS and how to find a job. Granted, some of these are important things to know. Disseminating such information is necessary. But this test is the first step for conferring the privilege of citizenship in the UK. Shouldn’t the test challenge the candidate to be responsible for the citizenship they seek?
Contrast the US naturalization test, which is a civics exam. There are 100 questions, none of which ask about the process for signing up for welfare.
In short, the US still seems to look to John F. Kennedy’s challenge to citizens, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
The higher state spending, welfare dependency, and excessive regulation haven’t wrought their worst damage by putting the budget in the red but by training subjects to ask their country to do for them, until they forgot how to do for themselves.