This weekend, I am heading down to Atlanta. My flight out of Boston will take approximately two hours. It took me a similar amount of time to fly from western Spain to Paris this summer. One thousand miles is a lot of space to travel, even if it feels like much more so in Europe than it does in America. Despite our greater shared identity, Americans are in many ways just as different as Europeans, or I would imagine, as different as any huge number of people living across a great amount of space. That is why it baffles me when comparisons are drawn between America and Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands, often with the implication that we would be much better off if only we were more like them. That kind of analysis misses a fairly important fact: our country is not much smaller than their continent.
The United States is comprised of 50 states and has over 300 million citizens. The European Union, comprised of 27 member states, has a population of approximately 500 million. Although we think of the first as a single nation with far more of a collective identity than the second, both are hodgepodges. Albanians are mostly Muslims, the majority of Swedes are Evangelical Lutherans, and the Netherlands is one of the most secular countries in the world. Religious diversity is also geographically-pronounced in the United States: most folks in southern New England identify as Catholics, while Utah is decidedly Mormon. New York City is home to more Jews than any other city in the world except for Tel Aviv. Policies are not any more similar within our mega-unions. Europe is home to the Germans, with their national labor relations system, the social democrats of Scandinavia, and the relatively laissez-faire Danes. Malta does not recognize divorce (yet), but Spain allows same-sex couples to receive marriage licenses. America’s states also adopt many different values and models.
Although we have a shared history, language, and culture that Europeans do not, Americans still live in a very, very diverse country with a wide set of beliefs and attitudes. Fortunately, we have a federal system, like that in Europe, capable of leaving room for our various differences. Georgia has a state-funded college scholarship program that surpasses any other in the country, while Arkansas recognizes “covenant marriages” that are subject to stricter divorce proceedings than other civil marriages. Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana in 2008, whereas Californians chose not to in 2010. New Hampshire does not have an income tax and has quite liberal seat belt laws, while their neighbors in Vermont elected a socialist to the U.S. Senate and are considering establishing a single-payer health care system.
There are plenty of issues in Europe and America, especially those related to budgets but also many social policies, where “live and let live” is a better solution than national debates. I have no interest whatsoever in living under single-payer health care, but it is every Vermonter’s prerogative to if they so desire. For that matter, it makes it easier for me to avoid single-payer health care if every resident of Connecticut in support of it simply moves there instead! Meanwhile, Vermonters will have an easier time doing as they please if the Free State Project manages to pull its libertarians across the border into the Granite State.
If, however, we become more like the enlightened denizens of any particular country on the far side of the Atlantic, we then will have to learn to accept more hackneyed compromises and decisions made by people who do not share many of our most important values. A diehard California Democrat might relish in the chance to save Oklahoma’s poor shoppers with a department of consumer affairs like the one they currently enjoy. But are they willing to learn evolution Texas-style?
The more America understands itself as a group of states like the European Union, the more states can chart their own course and adopt whatever policies strike the fancy of their citizens. The more that America has a sense of being a union in necessary things and states with regards to much of the day-to-day work of government, the more we will get along just fine. That kind of balance, after all, is at the very heart of the European Union’s understanding of itself. Let’s not get foolish, though, and mistake Washington for Stockholm at times when it should be thought of more as our Brussels.
About the Author: Originally from Connecticut, Matt Cavedon is pursuing a joint JD/Masters in Theological Studies degree at the Emory School of Law and the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, Georgia. Matt is a Catholic, holds conservative views, and aims to walk the fine line between constructive criticism and downright cynicism towards popular political trends. He finds the insights of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco Suarez, Edmund Burke, Jacques Maritain, Friedrich Hayek, and James C. Scott particularly valuable. In his free time, Matt enjoys visiting art museums, informally composing classical music in his head, and drinking a good glass of scotch or red wine.