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Friday, August 12, 2005

Fear of Big, or Fear of Big Government

Daniel's post on comparative privacy law raises really interesting questions about American attitudes toward concentrations of power, public and private.  Why do we fear government (big and little) more than we fear corporations (even really big and powerful ones)?  Certainly, the strength of the anti-globalization movement indicates that a great number of people (especially Europeans) really don't like big corporations.  But this view has not, by and large, caught on here. 

I can think of a range of explanations for American levels of trust toward government v. private enterprise.  Some are knee-jerk and simple (the government can put you in prison, McDonald's cannot).  Others are more nuanced.  For example, during the 19th Century, we developed a sharp distinction between the private and public.  This way of thinking about the world has become so much a part of our culture that it is difficult to imagine the alternative.  (For example, early municipal corporations were virtually indistinguishable from "private" ones, modern municipal corporations are virtually indistinguishable from the states.)  To the extent that the sharp public-private dichotomy never fully developed in Europe, it does not surprise me that Europeans have a different view of government intervention.  They may not think of the state as as separate from the individual/private corporation as Americans.   

The coverage of the London bombing reminded me that , when I lived in London two years ago, I was struck that the government is ALWAYS watching you.  Closed-circuit TV cameras are literally everywhere.  And nobody really cares.  (OK, some people care, but they admit that they are a small minority.  See Spyblog for CCTV opposition).    In London, everyone who drives a car must pay a tax each day -- the government keeps track of who is driving a car because your picture is taken several times a day.  It is literally impossible to sneak into the city.  On our one visit to Parliament, the Liberal Democrats were debating the Laborites about proposed reforms to assylum laws.  The LD guy said something like --  "we don't need to further close our borders, what we need is more CCTV.  That would protect our safety and our civil liberties."  I leaned over to my husband and muttered, "well, we're not in America."

Incidently, I have only been a victim of credit card fraud once -- in London.  And it was because of the incredible sloppiness of a major British department store's website (which did not require a "billing address").

Posted by ngarnett on August 12, 2005 at 04:34 PM | Permalink


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I'm not an expert on Spain- my information comes from reading papers, magazines, etc. and talking to a few Spanish friends and colleagues. But, my impression from this is that while the Church is up in arms about gay marriage in Spain most Spaniards are not, and that this is hurting the Church there more than the government. Like in all of Europe the Catholic Church has been in serious decline in Spain for years. (The fact that it was so chummy with the Franco fascist government didn't much help it.) Similarly, the over-the-top rhetoric of the Church on the issue (encouraging public servents to refuse to honor same-sex marriages, for example, and saying those who do so refuse are the same as those who resisted the Nazis) have also hurt it, it seems. So, as you say, we'll see what happens but it seems quite unlikely to me that the Church is going to win this one in the end.

This isn't to say that Europe isn't more conservative than the US in some ways- in attitudes to (non-European) immigration, for example, and in the need for connections in many aspects of life, especially accademia. But, in most of the ways that people in the US think of the liberal/conservative devide Europe is clearly more liberal than much or most of the US.

Posted by: Matt | Aug 14, 2005 2:26:56 PM

Matt, yes, they did, and that's why the church is up in arms... I have a sneaking suspicion that the socialists won't last too long, alas. I don't know: we'll see which is a stronger political force in Spain, class interests or religion.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 14, 2005 2:07:29 AM


Spain did just legalize same-sex marriage, though, didn't they. They aslo have, and had even under the conservative government, a much larger social security (in a broad sense) system than the US has. In general it's worth keeping in mind that the "conservative" parties in most of Europe are to the left of the democrats in the US on most issues. (For that matter Nixon was to the left of the democrats today on many issues.)

Jeff V.- there was quite a lot of support for socialism in the US in the end of the 19th C., w/ massive labor strikes and protests all over the country put down quite violently by the government- army shooting demonstrators and all of that. This didn't really end until WWII, but was quite visciously attacked both before and after that. This is to say noting about the quite common "Christian socialims" movements in the US in the 19th C.

Posted by: Matt | Aug 13, 2005 1:44:16 PM

I don't agree that "Americans" fear government more than they fear corporations. Some do, but a fairly decent-sized majority, often called "liberals", are the other way around. I don't mean that as a perjorative, by the way; I personally tend to agree with Jefferson that both are a potential threat to liberty.

In America, of course, there is another layer of questions which do not have to be asked in Britain. In Britain, the question is, "is this kind of surveillance a good idea?". In America, the question "is this kind of surveillance a good idea?" can necessarily only be asked after an affirmative answer to the question "is this kind of surveillance constitutional?"

I must, as usual, take exception to something that Paul says, insofar as, while I agree that New Labour is very much of the same cloth as the new Democrats, the Conservative Party is nothing like the Republican party. Conservatism in America is an ideological conservatism; to be sure, there are competing ideologies, and there are indeed reactionary elements within the party, but most people aligned with the GOP have a positive agenda to push forward. Britain's Tories are historically - and, save a brief period under Thatcher - merely reactionary stick-in-the-muds.

Posted by: Simon | Aug 12, 2005 8:14:35 PM

I also think we have to remember that Europe is a big place. Is the U.S. more conservative than France, Italy and Sweeden? Certainly. Germany and the U.K.? Probably, but given the behavior of the U.K. lately one doesn't know. Labor is starting to look a LOT like the Clintonian "new democrats" and the Tories have always behaved like the republicans. Is the U.S. more conservative than Poland and Greece? Eeeeeh... I'm not sure. Spain? No way, Jose. While I believe they have a socialist government right now, the previous guy was a pretty hard rightist, and the current guy is catching holy hell from the church...

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Aug 12, 2005 6:40:53 PM

i would say i distrust--rather than fear--individuals who seek to collect private information about me, whether they work for government or a private business. i used to think that eveyrone who was concerned about privacy experienced this same general distrust. not so. many americans will freely give up their social security number or fingerprints or some other indicator of identity for the convenience of not having to carry a membership card or credit card when going to the gym or purchasing gas.

Posted by: dgm | Aug 12, 2005 6:25:16 PM

This is part of a broader question (that I'm sure we've all been asking ourselves since 04): why is the U.S. so much more conservative than Europe? The most convincing answer that I have ever heard goes attributes the difference to suffrage policies in the 19th century. The argument (roughly) runs something like this: the U.S. extended suffrage to all males much earlier than most European countries, lessening the power of class antagonization. Accordingly, in the early 20th century, when socialism was first popularized, the American lower classes were less likely to buy into socialist ideology than lower classes in countries that didn't allow them to vote.

Of course, this is a limited answer, and other factors -- population density, the influence of a peculair brand of conservative Christianity, the Constitution's embrace of a limited federal government, etc. play a role as well. But I do think that the voting thing continues to have reverbations today, as socialist ideas and politicians have a much, much smaller influence in U.S. political and economic thinking than they do in, say, France.

Posted by: Jeff V. | Aug 12, 2005 6:15:03 PM

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