Monday, February 12, 2007

Geezer Socialism

The Economist has an insert on the EU business scene I read at the local B&N last night. The summary intro above gives a bit of the drift of the Econ piece, which in its interior damns the Euros with faint praise.

Also, the Economist has a nice little piece spanking the EU on its NATO policy, basically for trying to strut on the world stage without paying the price of admission.

The Wall Street Journal has a much more sensible precis of the problem, written by 2006 Nobel Laureate Edmund S. Phelps. Phelps in a nutshell:
The values that might impact dynamism are of special interest here. Relatively few in the Big Three report that they want jobs offering opportunities for achievement (42% in France and 54% in Italy, versus an average of 73% in Canada and the U.S.); chances for initiative in the job (38% in France and 47% in Italy, as against an average of 53% in Canada and the U.S.), and even interesting work (59% in France and Italy, versus an average of 71.5% in Canada and the U.K). Relatively few are keen on taking responsibility, or freedom (57% in Germany and 58% in France as against 61% in the U.S. and 65% in Canada), and relatively few are happy about taking orders (Italy 1.03, of a possible 3.0, and Germany 1.13, as against 1.34 in Canada and 1.47 in the U.S.).

Perhaps many would be willing to take it for granted that the spirit of stimulation, problem-solving, mastery and discovery has impacts on a country's dynamism and thus on its economic performance. In countries where that spirit is weak, an entrepreneurial type contemplating a start-up might be scared off by the prospect of having employees with little zest for any of those experiences. And there might be few entrepreneurial types to begin with. As luck would have it, a study of 18 advanced countries I conducted last summer found that inter-country differences in each of the performance indicators are significantly explained by the intercountry differences in the above cultural values. (Nearly all those values have significant influence on most of the indicators.)

The weakness of these values on the Continent is not the only impediment to a revival of dynamism there. There is the solidarist aim of protecting the "social partners"--communities and regions, business owners, organized labor and the professions--from disruptive market forces. There is also the consensualist aim of blocking business initiatives that lack the consent of the "stakeholders"--those, such as employees, customers and rival companies, thought to have a stake besides the owners. There is an intellectual current elevating community and society over individual engagement and personal growth, which springs from antimaterialist and egalitarian strains in Western culture. There is also the "scientism" that holds that state-directed research is the key to higher productivity. Equally, there is the tradition of hierarchical organization in Continental countries. Lastly, there a strain of anti-commercialism. "A German would rather say he had inherited his fortune than say he made it himself," the economist Hans-Werner Sinn once remarked to me.

In my earlier work, I had organized my thinking around some intellectual currents--solidarism, consensualism, anti-commercialism and conformism--that emerged as a reaction on the Continent to the Enlightenment and to capitalism in the 19th century. It would be understandable if such a climate had a dispiriting effect on potential entrepreneurs. But to be candid, I had not imagined that Continental Man might be less entrepreneurial. It did not occur to me that he had less need for mental challenge, problem-solving, initiative and responsibility.

It may be that the Continentals finding, over the 19th and early 20th century, that there was little opportunity or reward to exercise freedom and responsibility, learned not to care much about those values. Similarly, it may be that Americans, having assimilated large doses of freedom and initiative for generations, take those things for granted. That appears to be what Tocqueville thought: "The greater involvement of Americans in governing themselves, their relatively broad education and their wider equality of opportunity all encourage the emergence of the 'man of action' with the 'skill' to 'grasp the chance of the moment.'"

The most basic point to carry away is that the empirical results related here lend support to the Enlightenment theme that a nation's culture ultimately makes a difference for the nation's economic performance in all its aspects--productivity, prosperity and personal growth.

It was a mistake of the Continental Europeans to think that they expressed the right values--right for them. These values led them to evolve economic models bringing in train a level of economic performance with which most working-age people are now discontented. Perhaps the way out--to go from unsatisfactory performance to high performance--will require not only reform of institutions but also a cultural shift that returns Europe to the philosophical roots that put it on the map to begin with.

Let Freedom Ring!

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