Will Hutton fails to establish the superiority of European values, but his critique of America is surprisingly usefulby Martin Wolf / July 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Will Hutton is passionate, diligent and humane. His ability to articulate contemporary anxieties borders on genius. Yet hardly anyone engaged in making policy takes him seriously. He is an intellectual celebrity crying in the wilderness.
Hutton’s exaggerations as a polemicist have long undermined his credibility as an analyst. This book is no exception. But it does contain nuggets of truth. It is also well-timed. The bursting of the US stock market bubble should help his efforts to vindicate what he thinks of as European civilisation against its overweening American rival. It may even bring closer his goal of persuading his country that its destiny lies in the embrace of its European neighbours and the disavowal of its selfish American progeny.
The US, says Hutton, is in the grip of a malevolent creed that he calls conservatism. The heart of this creed is a belief-natural for immigrants in an almost empty continent-in the rights of private property. For Americans, “the purpose of society was to further the enjoyment of property and political power was only legitimate if it served this end.”
Europe, in contrast, possesses very different values, that go back to the early church and feudalism. In this tradition, argues Hutton, property is not seen “as an absolute right, as it is by US conservatives. Rather, it is a privilege that confers reciprocal obligations.” All important contrasts between the US and Europe derive, argues Hutton, from this difference in attitude to the relationship between the private and the public, the individual and society.
Contemporary Europeans, of left and right, believe in a social contract overseen by a benevolent state. Thus, “Europe has both an idea of the public realm that transcends the formal institutions of democracy, justice and government and a recognition that it is legitimate for the state to act purposively to shape economy and society.” The contrast, rooted in divergent histories, has grown deeper, argues Hutton, as American liberalism has faded and conservatives have increased their grip on US politics and society.
The rise of the American right has, says Hutton, shaped the form of global economic integration. On the world stage, US conservatism is guided by three principles: unilateralism; an aggressive focus on promoting the interests of US sectors and companies; and an instinctive preference for “market solutions and remedies, both as a matter of intellectual conviction, and because over a period these render it more…