What is so great about social democracy anyway?

Andrew Smith, a loyal MR reader, writes:

You said in one of your
recent MR posts that although you did not find the European model
sustainable over the long run, frequent trips to Europe revealed much
in the model that delighted you. I believe you singled out Stockholm…as being a particularly vivid illustration of all that
social democracy could do right.

I, too, am a free-market enthusiast who is delighted by
European cities, but when I think carefully about what delights me I
find that it is less anything developed since World War II and more the
remnants of the Europe that existed before the First World War.

First, there is the dense urban development that created
incredible communities from the rise of Venice in the Middle Ages to
the Paris that Haussmann created in the mid-19th century.  I cannot
think of a single community built mostly after World War I that has
much charm and those built mostly after WWII — like the tower
communities that ring Paris — are downright depressing, worse than any
of the strip malls and sprawl American capitalism has produced since
the war.

The regional cuisines, the sidewalk cafes, the specialty merchants, the distinctive aspects of each area’s art and music — it all came about before WWI and now lingers as
a slowly fading twilight of Europe’s high noon.  (True, farm subsidies and merchant regulations do help maintain the beautiful countryside and the small shops, but I think Europeans have enough passion for local that both things would mostly survive in a free market.)

What part of the Europe that you enjoy so much owes its existence to social democracy?  Just curious.

Excellent points.  My answer is twofold.  First, social democracy has kept Europe, its high standard of living, and its historical wonders, more or less intact.  Through much of 1914-194? this outcome was by no means obvious.  I am willing, at times, to resort to crude historicism.

Second, European social democracy offers its citizens the most wonderful vacations elsewhere.  I just don’t see how most Americans tolerate only two weeks’ vacation. 

(Mind you, I am not lazy; my vacations, done my way, are more strenuous than any work day.  In fact I consider a work day my source of relaxatoin.  If I have to relax, at least I want to be getting lots done.)

As an aside, I do find contemporary Finland visually attractive, and I believe Lille would please me also, from the photos I have seen.

In any case, Smith’s points should cause us to downgrade that "aesthetic halo of achievement" which social democracy has around many of our heads.


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