American historians in the 1950s spent much time considering the sources of American uniqueness – i.e., why had American history been so free of the bitter ideological wars that tore Europe apart. Today American uniqueness is again a topic. The question now, however, focuses not so much on ideology as on the reasons for continued America vitality while the former powers of Western Europe increasingly sink into what appears to be terminal torpor.
The welfare systems put into place in Western European countries since World War II are proving unsustainable, especially as the European population ages and birthrates decline sharply. The ratio of wage earners to retirees is dropping rapidly. To maintain that ratio, Europe is forced to allow large-scale immigration from Moslem lands. But that large Moslem influx has threatened to tear asunder whatever remains of common national cultures.
French voters were right to sink the European Constitution, which included thousands of regulations governing everything from the size of ball-bearings to the curvature of bananas, and would have effectively transferred rule of the continent to bureaucrats in Brussels. But they did so for all the wrong reasons. French workers feared that the new European Union would threaten their government’s ability to protect their 35-hour work week and six week summer vacations.
At the end of the day, however, nothing can protect French workers from harder-working workers in Asia. The basic law of economics remains in place: In the long run, a society cannot spend more than it earns.
One of the sources of continued American vitality compared to Europe is its federal system, in which a great deal of power remains with fifty individual states. American federalism, for instance, stands in stark contrast to the highly centralized French state, and even more so to totalitarian societies.
Louis Brandeis, the first Jew to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, once described the states in the American federal systems as fifty laboratories in which different responses to common problems can be tested. The dramatic change in the American welfare system during the Clinton years, for instance, was largely based on models developed at the state level in Wisconsin and Michigan.
Another advantage of the federal system is that its relative decentralization allows for greater responsiveness on the part of the government to the needs of citizens and makes it easier to take account of local differences. The distance between decision-makers and those affected by their decisions is lessened.
The greater responsiveness to the needs and desires of the citizenry characterizes democratic governments and market economies, as opposed to highly centralized bureaucratic states and planned economies (the two tend to go together.) Free markets provide the most efficient and rapid measure of the desires of consumers, who vote, as the saying goes, with their pocketbooks. And in a democratic society, with open political debate and a free press, citizens’ complaints have a better chance of being heard.
By contrast, in a highly centralized society, information does not flow from the bottom to the top. At the extreme end of totalitarian societies, the regime attempts to control all information. In the process, those who would address themselves to various societal problems are cut off from one another and from the information they need.
The media in a totalitarian society, rather than being a source of information, becomes merely a means for instilling the cult of the great leader and of terrorizing the population by conveying warnings of the retribution to be exacted from anyone who dares to question the regime in any way.
Totalitarian regimes can, for a period of time, marshal all the resources of the society for a huge project. North Korea’s ability to produce nuclear weapons and highly sophisticated missiles is a case in point. But such centralized, planned economies are notoriously inefficient and incapable of supplying the needs of the population in the long run.
That is why in the space of little more than half a century of Communist rule, the average height of North Koreans has shrunk to eight inches less than that of their relatives in South Korea. Millions of North Koreans face starvation on a perpetual basis, and the regime is forced to rely on concentration camps and centers for reindoctrination to keep the population in line.
The only consolation is that totalitarian societies inevitably sink under the weight of their own inefficiencies and the inability of the leaders to respond to the needs of the citizenry.
Every successful society must be capable of adapting to changing circumstances, of unleashing the creative potential and talents of its members, and of maintaining an open flow of information from decision-makers to those affected by their decisions and vice versa. Federalism has played an important role in helping American society meet these demands.
Professor Jeremy Rabkin of Cornell University has pointed out the influence on American constitutional arrangements of Jean Bodin’s ideas on national sovereignty. Bodin’s treatise on sovereignty drew largely on Jewish sources, including tractate Sanhedrin.
It would be interesting to study what elements in Torah society have historically allowed Jews to flourish in widely different milieus, and to consider how those elements continue to function today to enable us to face new challenges and circumstances as they arise.