European disunion

December 08, 2004|By Zachary Shore

THE SLAYING of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh had nearly receded from the headlines when Geert Wilders, a prominent Dutch politician, sparked more controversy by calling for a halt to Muslim immigration. In response, a Dutch Muslim teacher declared on TV that he wished for Mr. Wilders' death.

Most observers, struggling to make sense of Holland's sudden violent outburst, classify Mr. van Gogh's slaying as a grisly case of Islamic extremism. They stack it upon a heap of mental clippings together with Madrid's train bombings and America's 9/11. Others reflect upon the vituperative Dutch responses and file them in their makeshift folder marked "European Islamophobia," just next to France's headscarf ban. But future historians will correctly label the van Gogh affair and its aftermath under the heading, "The Americanization of Europe."

The van Gogh killing and other instances of Islamic extremism are part of an ongoing Europe-wide phenomenon that will end not in mass carnage and destruction but in a massive restructuring of the welfare state. Europe's sense of social solidarity is certain to disintegrate as individual European states become more ethnically, racially, religiously and culturally diverse. And when enough Europeans come to resent working and sacrificing for those who are regarded as unlike themselves, they will resist income redistribution schemes. Social democracy will then die painfully. And it will be painful, for it will mean a fundamental reordering of European society.

In order for wealth redistribution to take root within a society, its citizens must possess a strong sense of shared identity. People will accept high taxation rates in exchange for generous social services so long as they believe that their wealth is being redistributed to others like themselves. As three Harvard economists argued in a 2001 position paper, wealth redistribution is hindered by a society's degree of heterogeneity. In other words, people can be persuaded to work in part for the benefit of others if they feel a common bond with the welfare recipients.

Danes pay, for example, as much as 70 percent of their income in taxes. Italians, French and Swedes all pay far higher taxes than do Americans. They have always done so in part because they knew their money was going to other Danes, Italians, French or Swedes. They believed that they were giving a helping hand to those who shared their values, their cultural norms, their work ethic, and surely also their genes. But if incidents such as the van Gogh murder, female genital mutilation and imam-inspired sermons of hate continue to grab the headlines, and if European Muslim unemployment and crime rates remain disproportionately high, then ethnic Europeans will increasingly view Muslims as possessing foreign values.

One reason social democracy never succeeded in the United States is that America is a starkly heterogeneous land. Despite the melting-pot myth, Americans have rarely felt close bonds with those of different races. One need only consider the treatment of the American Indians, African slaves or Latino migratory farm workers for evidence. This does not mean that Americans are bad people or that individual Americans have never overcome racial divides. But as whole, American society has demonstrated limited ability to forge deep interethnic bonds. Even today, less than 2 percent of marriages are interracial.

Income redistribution can indeed occur when the historical context permits. In postwar Europe, laissez faire was not a realistic option. The massive devastation of war necessitated government intervention, job programs to curtail widespread unemployment and welfare programs to support the many who could no longer work and the many more who needed a helping hand as the continent recovered. Wealth redistribution was not simply appropriate, the public demanded it.

But by the 1970s, Europe's economic recovery, fueled by the Marshall Plan and Germany's economic miracle, were history and the zeitgeist slowly began to shift. The Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher revolutions called for a curtailing of redistribution and a cutting of taxes. Hard-working individuals, they declared, should be able to keep more of what they earn for themselves, to spend as they see fit.

But what makes a society's mood change? Why do nations seem afflicted with bipolar disorder over time? It mainly comes down to values. When people believe that their wealth is being given to those who share their values, they can be persuaded to bear heavy tax burdens. But if that perception changes, and people believe that they are working to support those with "foreign" values, resistance to redistribution will mount.

Europeans may look back on Mr. van Gogh's murder as just one incident among many in the slow unraveling of social democracy. In a few short decades, Europeans may not even recognize themselves because they will look so much like Americans.

Zachary Shore is a research fellow at the Institute of European Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the forthcoming Losing Hearts and Minds: America in the Muslim World.

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