The Ethical Imperative for Making America Better: Learn from our Peer Nations

| Present

For physicians, the Hippocratic Oath forms the ethical basis of their practice. Our leaders in Congress take a solemn vow to defend the Constitution of the United States.  Law enforcement officials make promises to “serve and protect.” Whether these promises are actually kept or not, the people making them are, in effect, undertaking an ethical imperative to behave in ways that support the common good.

As we have seen in previous posts, and as many of us know anyway from personal experience, we have a lot of problems in the United States. We love our great nation, but it is undeniable that most of us struggle on a daily basis with a myriad of challenges. We read constant stories about – or are victims ourselves of – violence, poverty, crime, job loss, financial crises in our cities and towns, hunger, homelessness, environmental destruction, spiritual malaise, racial injustice, outbreaks of deadly viruses, and tragic death. This litany is so overwhelming as to be almost paralyzing.

By contrast, other nations, in Europe and elsewhere, boast some of the happiest citizens in the world. The Danes, Swiss, Norwegians, Dutch and Swedes are generally in the top five in the World Happiness Report (in the 2016 version, the US ranks 13th, and in previous surveys the US ranked 15th and 17th.) If we look at the “happiest” nations from a “quality of life” perspective, we see amazing examples of societies that exemplify principles such as love of neighbor and care for the most vulnerable: map-europe[1]

  • While the US has a childhood poverty rate of nearly one fifth (or upwards of 45% if the proper methodology is used for calculating the poverty level), childhood poverty rates in various advanced nations are much lower: the Netherlands and Norway 6.1%, Denmark 6.5%, and Switzerland 8.1%.
  • The homicide rate, averaged between 2005 and 2007 in the US, is approximately 5.6 out of 100,000. Other nations’ rates in the same time period are 2.04 (Belgium), 1.17 (Denmark), 1.06 (Netherlands), and 0.9 (Germany).
  • On average, top executive pay in the US is over 350 times greater than the wages of an average worker. Some Europeans are currently protesting huge wage gaps, but their gaps are actually much smaller than ours: 58 times in Norway, 147 in Germany , and 148 in Switzerland.
  • The long-term unemployment rate in our country was around 2.4% in 2012. But even given the worldwide Great Recession, long-term unemployment is significantly lower in many advanced nations: 0.3% in Norway, 1.3% in Sweden, 1.5% in Switzerland, and 1.7% in the Netherlands.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that our average life expectancy in the US is the highest it’s ever been: 78.8 years. However, many advanced nations have surpassed this level for a long time (2014 statistics): 83 years in Switzerland, 82 in Sweden and Norway, and 81 in the Netherlands.

There are a number of other comparative markers that can be examined, with similar results, some of which we have examined in the past: poverty, amount of paid vacation, parental leave and sick days mandated by law, incarceration rates, carbon footprint, wages, savings, credit card debt, and access to public transportation and the Internet. In these ways, most of the European nations have been doing significantly better than we have since World War II.

While our people suffer and our national leaders wrangle over proposed solutions, Europeans – 28 nations and half a billion people – exist in a prosperous, peaceful and productive bloc that is largely unfamiliar to most of us in the United States. (Michael Moore makes these points in his recent film, Where to Invade Next – I highly recommend it!) Even liberals and progressives in the US, who valiantly fight against the excesses and material wealth of the “one percent,” seem oblivious to what Europeans have created. This is due in large part to several factors: our assistance in winning World War II; our early prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s, which we believe is still the case; our presumed military superiority; our enormous material wealth; and our self-characterization as a religious people. We are a proud and patriotic people in a vast and beautiful country; in itself, these traits are not bad, but they can and do lead us into some dangerous myths and misunderstandings that are having tragic consequences for millions.

Steven Hill, in his masterful 2010 book, Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age, which I have cited before, outlines not only the ways in which the nations of the European Union, non-EU nations, and some countries aspiring to join the EU have succeeded but also how they have done so. By visiting Europe and conducting 10 years of research on all aspects of these societies, Hill supplements raw statistics with rigid analysis of those nations’ processes, philosophy, and practices. By doing so, he provides us with hope that modern, intelligent human beings can actually create cultures that benefit the vast majority of their people. Hill does not whitewash Europe’s weaknesses but rather puts them in a helpful context that also sheds light on how far the US has fallen behind.

Hill was writing before the current refugee crisis, but he did make a number of important observations about anti-discrimination initiatives, immigrants and related issues in Europe (see pages 316-26):

  • In Denmark, racial and ethnic minorities winning seats in federal and state parliaments, despite 2006 cartoons harshly depicting prophet Muhammad and subsequent Arab-Muslim riots.
  • Anti-discrimination legislation was passed in Germany in 2006, followed by programs to promote integration. Five elected representatives in the Bundestag (out of 612) are of Turkish descent.
  • The Netherlands has developed an array of programs to foster integration, and 10 elected representatives (of 150) in the national parliament have a Muslim background.
  • Sweden has half a dozen Parliament members who trace their ancestry to African and South American countries and Turkey.
  • In Switzerland, the election of Ricardo Lumengo marked the first immigrant from Africa elected to Parliament.

While the refugee crisis is putting an incredible strain on EU nations and resulting in some successes of far-right xenophobic groups, we in the US must note the many efforts of EU citizens and governments to address the crisis with both compassion and pragmatism. We would do well to learn from them and temper our frequent responses from fear, judgment, punishment and ideology.

We in the US are citizens of a democratic republic – and therefore bear responsibility for solving our vast social problems. This responsibility comes from the fact that our nation that is based on participation in the democratic process. Therefore we citizens, and our elected officials, have an ethical imperative to educate ourselves about workable solutions, scores of which have been undertaken, honed and perfected in Europe and other advanced nations for decades. Those solutions are there for all to see.

In my opinion, it is not only a failure of collective will to learn from those other countries but also irresponsible, disgraceful and unethical to ignore or shun them, especially if we do so out of knee-jerk, outdated fears of what we perceive as their “socialist” political systems or our arrogance (even hubris) about our presumed superiority.

This does not mean that we need to copy what they do lock, stock and barrel. We have to craft solutions that work for us – hopefully at the national level but, if that is not possible, then at least state by state.

I have become convinced that looking to advanced nations who do vastly better than the US on quality of life issues – and “stealing” their good ideas (like Moore does in Invade) – is our ethical imperative as citizens, voters and elected officials.