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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Becoming Europe’

“Suffocating supranationalism of the European Union marches on . . . . Washington is already on the path to Brussels, Paris and Athens, but it still has an opportunity to reverse course.”

Book review by Nile Gardiner

BECOMING EUROPE: ECONOMIC DECLINE, CULTURE, AND HOW AMERICA CAN AVOID A EUROPEAN FUTURE, by Samuel Gregg, Encounter Books, $25.99, 384 pages.

“Socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess,” declared Margaret Thatcher in a television interview before she became Britain’s prime minister. “They always run out of others people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them.” The Iron Lady’s words rang true back in 1976 as Britain faced bankruptcy under the Labor government of Harold Wilson. They are just as relevant today as economies across Europe are reeling from decades of mismanagement, heavy overspending, excessive government regulation and over-taxation.

The eurozone crisis has shaken the very foundations of the European Union over the past three years, and will continue to do so for years to come. Unfortunately, many of Europe’s leaders remain firmly in denial about the extent of the economic malaise. That includes France’s new president, Francois Hollande, whose anti-free-market policies are nothing less than economic suicide.

The French government’s 75 percent marginal income tax rate on anyone earning more than $1.32 million a year is sheer folly for a country with a public debt standing at 91 percent of gross domestic product, that badly needs to attract investment. France’s entrepreneurs have begun fleeing the country in droves, as have star celebrities such as actor Gerard Depardieu, who has now taken up Russian citizenship. France stands a humiliating 30th out of 43 countries in Europe, according to the newly released Heritage Foundation-Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom. Its global ranking (62nd), places it behind Mexico, El Salvador and Albania.

Worryingly, President Obama is sounding a lot like President Hollande when it comes to raising taxes, and his endless class warfare rhetoric is Hollandesque as well. French ministers are even citing the Obama administration’s bailouts as inspiration for their own nationalization endeavors. With the United States sinking in more than $16 trillion of public debt, and 128 million Americans now on government programs, the “land of the free” is looking increasingly like continental Europe. Incredibly, a recent Rasmussen poll revealed that 45 percent of Democrats hold a favorable view of socialism, a remarkably high figure for supporters of the governing party in the United States.

This is why Samuel Gregg’s excellent book, “Becoming Europe,” is so timely. It should be on the desk of every member of the House and Senate who cares about the future of America as a prosperous and free nation. The European economic nightmare, as Mr. Gregg amply demonstrates, has already crossed the Atlantic. His book is full of rich detail describing the economic and social “Europeanization” of America, from the rise of vast welfare systems to growing skepticism of the merits of the free-enterprise system. He cites a striking GlobeScan poll, which revealed that favorable views of the free market had dropped among Americans from 80 percent in 2002 to just 59 percent in 2011, undoubtedly in response to the recession and downturn that followed the 2008 crash.

“Becoming Europe” is a meticulously researched and well-argued thesis that lays out what is at stake for the world’s superpower, as it faces a stark choice between European-style decline or a return to the original vision of America’s Founding Fathers, as well as the classical liberal teachings of Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich von Hayek and Adam Smith. Mr. Gregg, who is director of research at the Acton Institute, paints a grim picture of the direction America is taking but, nevertheless, conveys a positive message to his readers. Mr. Gregg argues that while America is indeed on the path to the European model, it can still turn back and avoid the fate that Europe looks doomed to suffer. In many respects, this is an optimistic book based upon faith in America’s ability to renew itself through rediscovering the principles of economic liberty.

I agree with Mr. Gregg’s assessment. As Gallup polling consistently shows, America is still at its core a conservative nation, one that cherishes the foundations of individual liberty. The fire of freedom still burns brighter on this side of the Atlantic than it does in the Old World, where the suffocating supranationalism of the European Union marches on, with the EU heading toward ever-greater political and economic centralization. The European nightmare can be avoided here, however, only if America’s leaders, at both a national and state level, are willing to stand up for economic freedom and reject the destructive ideology of big government. Washington is already on the path to Brussels, Paris and Athens, but it still has an opportunity to reverse course and avoid the road to economic ruin.

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Nile Gardiner, a former aide to Margaret Thatcher, is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation. This article first appeared in the Washington Times on January 22, 2013.