A Paradox

Tyler Cowen on an alleged problem with my worldview:

I wonder sometimes whether inequality of status — as opposed to wealth — is greater in Western Europe or in the United States. In this country you can love NASCAR and be proud of it. Millionaires won’t look down on you much for that taste. In Europe you are expected to dress well and be educated and not watch too much TV. So the egalitarian left is in an odd position here. On one hand it wishes to elevate the European system over the United States. Furthermore it also wishes to claim that wealth isn’t a final determinant of happiness (i.e., Europe is worthy), while at the same time circling back to emphasize inequality of wealth as a prima facie fault of the American system.

That’s a nice story, but I don’t see any evidence whatsoever that the United States actually is a snob-free country where rich people don’t do any looking down at their social inferiors. I feel like I live in a country where, as in European places I’ve visited, we have our snobs and our racists and all the rest along with some nice people. But even if it is true that Europe has more snobs, this is really neither here nor there in terms of any particular policy debate. To take the idea that the American left wants to make the country “like Europe” too literally is silly — there are a lot of elements of European society that couldn’t possibly be replicated over here (old cathedrals) or that wouldn’t be reasonable to replicate (tons of languages) or that are downright undesirable.

But there are things we can learn from Europe. Amsterdam and Copenhagen are examples of cities that have done a lot of work to make transportation policy work for people, rather than for cars. France has a health care system that a lot of people deem admirable, and at least lets us think about what a very different approach to public education (where I think they’re on to something) and the work/leisure tradeoff (where I think we’re on to something) would look like. I don’t see why we can’t become more like some European countries in some respects (and there are other respects in which some European countries ought to become more like the US) without abandoning wholesale the parts of American culture that are broadly appealing to many people around the world.