Little complement to yesterday’s post

May 8, 2009

Please see previous blog post. I am adding this one to complement the discussion. Someone drew my attention to this very interesting article in the NY Times on a European welfare system ( a case study of the Dutch system) as seen by a US expatriate. “Going Ducth”, by Russell Shorto. It has a rather positive outlook on the system. If I may, I am adding that the Dutch system cannot be compared with crumbling systems in other EU countries, further south, which have not, contrary to the Dutch, been able to modernize as well and integrate the dynamic elements of more market-based principles into their economies and the welfare system itself. Furthermore, the protestant collectivism he sees is a bit less prevalent in more Latin cultures further down south, such as the one I know best, the French one… Yet, sitting in, Brussels, the abode of Europeanism and a place where “social Europe” is a mantra, let me highlight the problems the author sees with it:

Something about this place rekindles the existential rage of my youth. Why are we here? How does a person achieve contact with his soul? Or in somewhat less grandiose terms: What do you do with yourself on a lazy Sunday afternoon? You pop into a shop. You sit at a cafe and read. You linger in a bookstore. Is this not why we have cities? Alas, such activity is largely impossible on a Sunday in my adopted city. A collusion of two forces in the mid-20th century — the workers’ movement and the church — resulted in a policy of restricted business hours, and the conservative Dutch system is resistant to change. The supermarket in my tiny hometown in western Pennsylvania is open 24 hours a day. I challenge you to find anything open 24 hours a day in this supposedly world-class city. Indeed, most shops close by 6 p.m. — precisely when people leaving work might actually want to patronize them.

This rant has a couple of deeper points behind it. For one, the sameness suggests a homogeneous population, which the Netherlands long had. A broad social-welfare system works if everyone assumes that everyone else is playing by the same rules. Newcomers, with different ways of life and expectations, threaten it. This is one reason the recent waves of non-Western immigration have caused so much disturbance. Can such a system work in a truly multiethnic society?

Then, too, one downside of a collectivist society, of which the Dutch themselves complain, is that people tend to become slaves to consensus and conformity. I asked a management consultant and a longtime American expat, Buford Alexander, former director of McKinsey & Company in the Netherlands, for his thoughts on this. “If you tell a Dutch person you’re going to raise his taxes by 500 euros and that it will go to help the poor, he’ll say O.K.,” he said. “But if you say he’s going to get a 500-euro tax cut, with the idea that he will give it to the poor, he won’t do it. The Dutch don’t do such things on their own. They believe they should be handled by the system. To an American, that’s a lack of individual initiative.”


Another corollary of collectivist thinking is a cultural tendency not to stand out or excel. “Just be normal” is a national saying, and in an earlier era children were taught, in effect, that “if you were born a dime, you’ll never be a quarter” — the very antithesis of the American ideal of upward mobility. There seem to be fewer risk-takers here. Those who do go out on a limb or otherwise follow their own internal music — the architect Rem Koolhaas, say, or Vincent Van Gogh — tend to leave.”


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