I spent a couple of weeks in France on a research mission that somehow managed to include eating very well, visiting famous landmarks and being harangued to buy five Chinese-made Eiffel Tower keyrings for one Euro. Besides really wanting start an article with “I spent a couple of weeks in France”, I also really wanted to take a deep dive into the democratic socialism that so many Americans look enviously at across the Atlantic.
This article is not an attempt to bash the European social state. Even a fiscal conservative with libertarian leanings can see plenty of positives in their model. The intention is, to paraphrase what a Frenchman told my daughter, to understand that if you want the French welfare state, you have to pay the French price for it. From the typical left-leaning American’s perspective, European social democracy with its strong social safety net and “free” healthcare is what the United States must transform into or forever be a backwards nation of troglodytes.
The first cultural difference you notice as a visitor to France is when you sit down at a restaurant. The friendly waitperson will quickly switch to English after you struggle with the pronunciation of steak haché (hamburger patty). Your order comes out in a reasonable amount of time and the food is excellent. Then you never see your waiter again. You see, tipping is optional. French labor laws are generous and your waiter is well compensated. With no motivation to increase the size of the check or earn a bigger tip, your waitperson transforms into a Yeti; elusive and rarely seen.
There are obvious advantages, since the burger cost $14 and the coffee $4, you may not be in a hurry to rack up more expenses. Also, since no one cares if you sit at the table for hours, many French natives do just that. The check has to be asked for, so there is not even the pressure from the restaurant to clear the table for the next diner.
Which brings us to the second point; everything costs more. There is a VAT tax that hits you like a punch to the gut. Or it would be if you could see it. The $14 burger you just paid for is actually $12.73 with $1.27 tax built in. The prices of gasoline are astronomical. Nowhere is the social engineering aspect of European culture starker. Gas taxes are intended to factor in the “social” costs of driving. In addition to paying for roads and bridges, there are added costs for not taking mass transit and driving a bigger car.
And this is the heart of the matter when comparing conservatism to the liberal model of government.
Americans not on the West Coast and the Northeast bristle at the idea of a central planner determining what is best for society and reining them in with taxes and laws. As a conservative with environmentalist tendencies, I can appreciate driving a smaller car and taking advantage of mass transit when feasible. Yet, like most conservatives, I resent the idea of being forced to do so.
Anecdotally, the French people I conversed with seem content with the tradeoffs. In many ways, the French middle class’ standard of living is lower than what we enjoy in the United States. For example, in Grenoble, where I spent the bulk of my time, most working class people live in apartments or condominiums. In a mixed blessing, the French don’t have sprawling suburbs of single family homes. Residential areas tend to be concentrated zones with high rises. Perhaps this is due to land being relatively more abundant in the United States than in Europe or that in Europe the cities have been established for literally a thousand years. Homes are available but the jump in prices is significant. A comfortable condominium in a decent neighborhood can be purchased for approximately $120,000. Homes start at $350,000, which creates a starker line between the haves and have-nots than I typically see at home. There are also enough Mercedes sedans to keep the perpetually aggrieved class warriors up in arms.
A family living in an apartment building typically has a tiny washing machine and air dries their laundry. If they have a car at all, it is likely a subcompact like a Peugeot or Volkswagen if they are particularly ostentatious.
If a simpler, sparser lifestyle and a strong social safety net in exchange for personal autonomy and a big chunk of your lifetime income are appealing to you, France has much to offer. If on the other hand, you think you can be trusted with your own money to take care of your family, save for the future and occasionally travel to socialist paradises, enjoy the United States.