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Americans and Europeans Dancing in the Dark
On Our Differences and Affinities, Our Interests, and Our Habits of Life
By Dennis L. Bark
Hoover Institution Press Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
The Essential Difference
Europeans and Americans do not refer to the essential difference by name, but we know it is there in the form of continental contrasts. Americans wonder why European governments have so much more patriarchal authority over matters which in America are private responsibilities. Why, they ask, do Europeans trust government to satisfy private desires better than private citizens? It seems to many Americans that many Europeans have traded a portion of their liberty for economic security, and are willing to give up some of their personal freedom in exchange for stability.
This perception draws attention to a striking distinction in how Europeans and Americans generally view the purpose of government. Americans of all political persuasions are committed to individual freedom, and believe it is the government's responsibility to protect the freedom of the individual, not to limit that freedom. Vehement and sometimes strident political debates take place between Americans on all kinds of subjects, from taxes and regulation to the proper obligations of the state versus those of the individual. But in spite of strongly held differences of opinion most Americans consider too much government unhealthy, and many believe that Europe has too much of it.
Whenever Americans and Europeans do discuss the essential difference, which is not often, they point out that it runs throughout the histories of Europe and America, but that it is easier to explain as it concerns the New World. What they mean is that America, in its youth, is still very much aware of the principle on which it was founded. In fact, as Europeans often comment, Americans talk about the principle all the time. They call it freedom, and independence; and some Europeans call it a history of winning. From the ground up Americans celebrate it with a birthday party every year on the fourth of July, and they express their appreciation for it each year on a national day of thanksgiving.
In the Old World, however, no celebration is held in honor of a European principle; indeed, if there were such a principle what could it be? Some Europeans caution that the explanation of the essential difference, from the continental perspective, is not so straightforward, because their history is one of losing. It takes much longer to tell, because Europe is a tree with many branches that has been growing for more then twenty centuries.
From the Top Down
What marks American and European history appears in stark relief. America was built by European immigrants, and their descendants, who eschewed social, political, and economic practices they resented. Their purpose was to form their own government themselves, from the ground up. Europe, on the contrary, was built by Europeans who enjoyed social, political and economic privilege, and who had a great deal to gain from participating in government rule from the top down.
This explanation, however, makes little sense without reference to two subjects seldom mentioned when Europeans and Americans are together. The first is the role of aristocratic rule in Europe — that is to say, rule provided by Europe's royal houses and the nobility. The second is the practice of patronage — that is to say, the financial and political support given to all manner of cultural, educational, and social undertakings by the ruling and noble classes. Today these two subjects do not receive much attention. But they merit a great deal, especially when Americans and Europeans begin their periodic hand-wringing as they criticize each other's attitudes and behavior.
It is impossible to understand Europe and the Europeans without knowing how Europeans see themselves and their rights and responsibilities in their respective countries. Over centuries the role played by Europe's aristocracy and the practice of patronage established a hierarchy of governance and also contributed to a regimented class structure. To this day the exercise of rule from the top down remains largely unchanged, and much of Europe's class structure remains intact as well.
Americans, by comparison, have never had an aristocracy. There are, of course, some Americans who boast of having aristocratic European friends with titles like Baron or Count; although on that subject European "social climbers" follow the same practice. In this regard we are very much alike. But the point is that America has never been ruled by a class born to nobility. Americans have been governed by their own elected officials; in other words, by themselves, which is why Americans have never enjoyed patronage of the European variety. On the contrary, Americans have a history of giving, not receiving, a history of charity and volunteering, a history of social mobility and job mobility, a history of idealism, hope and openness, a history of individualism and toughness in order to survive, and a history of solving problems privately rather than turning to government.
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The history of European rule has produced dependence by the ruled on those who govern. It is true that by the end of the eighteenth century, marked by the French Revolution, much of the absolute power of the old aristocracies had slipped from their grasp; and a little more than a century later, by the end of World War I, the power held by the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian monarchies had disappeared too. But during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the authority of aristocratic royal houses was gradually replaced by that of political parties voted into office by the citizenry, the practice of rule from the top down nonetheless remained.
Today rule from the top down is exercised by what should properly be described as the new aristocrats. They are the current government elite, in the form of large cadres of civil servants, functionaries, government officials, and members of parliaments and national assemblies. Their influence is well illustrated by their numbers; for example, in Sweden one in three is employed by government, and in France it is one in four. Common to both the old and the new aristocrats is their impact on economic, political, and social life. Whether it is called big government or the welfare state the guiding principle of politics in contemporary Europe is rule by an elite.
This is not to say that there is no difference between governance by European royal houses in the eighteenth century and democratic government in Europe in the twenty-first. To cite the most glaring contrast, Europe's kings and queens ruled by divine right, while contemporary Europe is governed by elected leaders. There are, indeed, conspicuous differences in practice, but not in the basic relationship of dependency of the ruled on the rulers. One can properly emphasize that European voters elect their leaders, but once elected responsibility for the design and rationale for public policies is the closely held private preserve of the new aristocrats.
This practice, as it were, is exactly the opposite from that in America, where electorates continually challenge whether government policies serve the interests of the citizenry. American voters decide who will govern, monitor the performance and judge the effects of public policies on a continual basis, in every conceivable non-governmental forum. The implicit faith of Europeans in the ability of government to alleviate the miseries of the human condition is absent in America, and very much present is the conviction that strength is found in individual responsibility. This one difference gives an order of substance and meaning to our respective cultures. Nothing remains untouched.
Aristocrats, Old and New
The telling distinction between Europe and America appears in how Americans and Europeans view freedom and individual responsibility, and in how they define the proper role of the state. In America probably no one, in recent times, has cast the distinction more dramatically than an American president whose ancestors came from Ireland. To paraphrase from John Fitzgerald Kennedy's inaugural address in 1961, American social, political and economic culture prompts Americans to ask "What can we do for our country?" — whereas European social, political and economic culture prompts Europeans to ask, "What can our government do for us?" Although President Kennedy did not refer to the essential difference by name, its existence is reflected in the questions. From both can be drawn numerous comparisons between how Europeans and Americans conduct their private, public and professional relationships.
This is not to conclude that Americans love freedom more than Europeans do, or that all Europeans merrily follow government pied pipers. The disagreements Europeans have among themselves, about social, political, and economic issues, as well as the fervor of their disputes with each other, belie such an interpretation. Discovery of a fly in the soup is a daily event, but seldom is fault found with the soup itself, made, flavored and served by the new aristocrats.
Europeans and Americans, however, while they use the same words, do not always mean the same things. This applies to Europeans' attitudes toward freedom. They do not love it any less, but many conceive of it in a different way. This explains why Americans who have never studied aristocratic rule and the practice of patronage are often mystified by European attitudes toward authority. The history of both is closely linked. Although the governing role played by the aristocracy is well treated by historians, much less has been written about the equally influential role of patronage.
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Europe's rulers — that is to say, those who controlled wealth via the ownership of land and the collection of taxes, whether it was the aristocracy of princes, dukes, counts and barons, or the church — practiced patronage in every corner of society, and most notably in the humanities, arts, and sciences. In eighteenth-century Europe the Germans called this principle of rule Mäzenatentum. It is an old word which can be translated as patronage, and which might be replaced today with the German word Kulturstaat, which means literally, "state culture." Either way, the effect in the twenty-first century is remarkably similar to the result in the eighteenth. The state provides the financial base for all kinds of cultural, educational and social activities, rather than private individuals and foundations.
This applies to Europe generally, although in the case of England and Scotland the practice of rule has evolved differently. It is true that the experience of the English and the Scots has no counterpart in the rest of Europe. As my English colleagues point out to me, aristocratic rule, beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215 and followed by the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, gradually became subject to significant legal limitations. Further, they rightly emphasize that it was English common law, not Roman law, that was brought to America, along with the name of its most famous city — first called New Amsterdam by the Dutch in 1624 and renamed New York when the English captured it in 1664.
For continental Europeans the English case warrants a separate discussion, one which is tangential to the subject addressed in this book. There are, today, many Europeans on all sides of the political spectrum who consider the United Kingdom to be America's Trojan Horse in Europe, some of whom knowingly cite the remark attributed to George Bernard Shaw that America and Britain are two nations "divided by a common language." Indeed, the principle of rule discussed here developed differently in England than it did in continental Europe. But lest there be any mistake about it, the English have just as royal a history and just as rich a patronage as the continental Europeans. Rule from the top down was no more foreign to Britain than it was to the continent.
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This conclusion should not be construed as a dismissive response to the legitimate complaint that it is irresponsible to lump differing national histories into an amorphous concept of "Europe." The purpose here is simply to emphasize that patronage in Europe, including England and Scotland, was part of control and influence from the top down.
There are countless examples. One of the most impressive — because the practice has lasted so long and continues to this day — was the birth and development of Europe's great universities. It began with the University of Bologna in Italy in 1088. It is the oldest in Europe and boasts such alumni as St. Thomas Aquinas, Dante and Petrarch. Bologna was followed during the next 300 years by, among others, Paris, Salamanca, Cambridge, Oxford, Prague, Florence, Krakow, and Cologne in 1388. They all had wealthy, and in most cases royal and aristocratic patrons, whose financial and political support underwrote the development of higher learning. One result was the emergence of what we call the humanities and sciences. But individual explorers, artists, architects, writers, and scientists were the beneficiaries also.
There are hundreds of them, such as the explorers Columbus, Vespucci, Magellan, da Gama and Drake. Artists like Titian, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Dürer, Vermeer, David or Rubens. Philosophers and writers like Kant, Voltaire, Racine, Molière, Cervantes, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe and Schiller. Composers like Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Puccini, Debussy, and Beethoven. And of course scientists, such as Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Newton, Lavoisier, Linnaeus, and von Humboldt.
Most of the extraordinary examples of architecture in Europe are the fruits of patronage. The beauty of European buildings and the grandeur of continental monuments are less a symbol of openness and magnanimity than they are of aristocracy, nobility, and authority. Consider St. Paul's Cathedral or Buckingham Palace in London, or the cathedral (il Duomo) in Milan on which both Leonardo and Bramante worked; the Florentine Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore with its magnificent cupola designed by Filippo Brunelleschi; St. Peter's Basilica in Rome built by Lorenzo Bernini and the Sistine Chapel as well as the Sforza Chapel with paintings of Michelangelo, Botticelli and Perugino. Without the patronage of great noble families — such as the Medici, the Borghese and the Corsini in Italy — none of these magnificent creations would exist. Patrons determined, to a large extent, which artists and artisans survived and which disappeared from view.
Although the examples just cited are Italian, Italy was not an exception. French art and architecture are equally well-known, symbolized by the museum of the Louvre, Les Invalides, and the Château de Versailles. There are an equal number of noteworthy examples in Germany, such as the baroque palace of Würzburg built by the Schönborn family and the parks and palaces of Potsdam outside Berlin, where the most famous one has a French name, Sans Souci, and was built by the Hohenzollern, a family which still exists in Europe. And there is the classical city of Weimar, built by German dukes, where Goethe, Herder and Schiller lived.
It is impossible to know what they all would have achieved without patrons; but patronage accounted for much of the history of Western civilization. Munificent patronage not only enhanced the influence and prestige of those who provided it, but also built an extraordinarily rich European culture which had been in full bloom for centuries before the American idea of freedom was put into words in 1776, just a little more than 230 years ago.
A principal consequence was creation of a well-educated European class that became an intellectual elite, very much aware of the world beyond the borders of their own countries. Alongside this group, of course, existed another level of Europeans, poor in wealth and education, and largely ignorant of the world beyond their own villages, towns and cities. Of the countless millions of this class thousands risked the perils of the trip across the Atlantic; those who made it laid the foundations of modern America.
Patronage also provided, in a sense, a long-term and presumably unintended legacy. Little by little the beneficiaries became dependent on their patrons. As long as patronage continued, and was conducted on a broad scale and in an enlightened manner, there seemed to be no reason to take issue with why it was provided, or to condemn those providing it. Nor did it appear worthwhile to challenge whether, as a matter of principle, it was a wise thing to do, or if in fact, it might be producing an unanticipated consequence — namely, turning the beneficiaries into permanent wards of the patron. But the result was that patronage in the humanities, arts and the sciences eventually became a state responsibility, and part of an overall system of rule and control.
Excerpted from Americans and Europeans Dancing in the Dark by Dennis L. Bark. Copyright © 2007 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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