Rick Steves, Travel Expert, Says Americans Should Learn From Europe’s Socialism And Outlook

I’ve enjoyed watching a PBS travel show, “Rick Steves’ Europe.”  Its moderator, Rick Steves, has a great disposition, and shows great insight and thoughtfulness.

Steves has been a world traveler for many years and recently he summarized a lot of his conclusions in a provocative essay,  How Travel Changed my Perspective and Politics. Steves has acquired a perspective that appreciates and defends a European outlook on taxes, socialism, drugs, the military, etc.

Rick Steves with Dutch friend Rolinka.

Rick Steves with Dutch friend Rolinka.

Steves believes that more Americans should experience meaningful travel. He writes, “I will promote thoughtful travel with more gusto than ever because of my belief that if Americans had to travel before they could vote, our country would fit better into this ever smaller planet.”  Steves writes:  “Travel has heightened my concern for people issues. It hasn’t given me any easy solutions. But it has shown me that the people running our government have a bigger impact on the lives of the poor overseas than they do on my own life. It’s left me knowing suffering across the sea is as real as suffering across the street. … I believe that America — with all its power, wisdom and goodness — can do a better job of making our world a better place.

These are parts of Steves’ essay that I highlighted:

  • I was raised thinking the world was a pyramid with the USA on top and everyone else trying to get there. I believed our role in the world was to help other people get it right…American style. If they didn’t understand that, we’d get them a government that did. My country seemed to lead the world in “self-evident” and “god-given” truths. But travel changed my perspective.
  • I met intelligent people — nowhere near as rich, free or blessed with opportunity as I was — who wouldn’t trade passports. They were thankful to be Nepali, Moroccan, Turkish, Nicaraguan, or whatever…and I was perplexed. Swiss conservatives come with a social conscience. When I shudder at Switzerland’s high taxes, Ollie and Maria ask, “What’s it worth to live in a country with no homeless, no hunger, and where everyone has access to good health care and a top-quality education?”
  • Travel paints a human face on our globe, making the vast gap between rich and poor vivid. Half of humanity — 3 billion people — is trying to survive on $2 a day. This is a fact. Educated people throughout the world know that America, with 4 percent of the world’s population, controls half its wealth. And most of the world believes we elected a president whose mission is to make us wealthier.
  • Travel has sharpened both my love of what America stands for and my connection with our world. And lessons I’ve learned far from home combined with passion for America have heightened my drive to challenge my countrymen to higher ideals. Crass materialism and a global perspective don’t mix. We can enjoy the fruits of our hard work and still be a loved and respected nation. While I’ve found no easy answers, I spend more time than ever searching. The world needs America the beautiful. But lately, the world sees America as more aggressive and materialistic than beautiful.
  • Europe is also wealthy. But it gives capitalism a compassionate twist — a safety net for the losers — even if it weakens the much vaunted incentives of pure capitalism. It’s tough to get really rich in Europe .
  • While no one would argue that if my cat has more buying power than a Chilean child, my cat should get the tuna…that’s how it works in today’s world. You may prefer not to understand the economics behind this, but there’s blood on your banana.
  • We’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are a generous nation. But the aid we give to poor countries around the world amounts to one-eighth of one percent of our national income. While we are the wealthiest nation, our allies give much more to the poor. Most of our “aid” is military aid to allies like Israel . Take away that and we’re a perennial last place among wealthy nations.
  • Most of the world’s forty poorest nations have debts to the rich world (primarily the USA ) so big that roughly half of their national budgets are spent paying the interest.
  • Much of the world, which recognizes that these debts were incurred by long gone dictators, sees the Third World debt problem as the slavery of the 21st century. The international community has made great strides in forgiving this debt (erasing $60 billion so far). But solving this issue — so debilitating to so many desperate nations — requires American support. And most American politicians understandably assume that pushing this issue will win them no points with their electorate.
  • Farm subsidies also help keep the poor world hungry. Both the USA and Europe protect their farmers with subsidies, making it impossible for farmers in the poor world to compete. Flooding hungry nations with sacks of charity grain from the subsidized farms of rich countries only puts local farmers out of business, exacerbating that country’s food problems.
  • In the wake of 9/11, America has realized that poverty fertilizes conditions which breed terrorism. Yet there is still a net flow of wealth from the poor world into the rich world. And many who’ve devoted their life’s work to this issue conclude that the big road block when it comes to making progress on global poverty issues is nearly always the United States.
  • As the gap between rich and poor countries continues to grow, a strong feeling of persistent injustice will grow, too. And patriots will be driven to terrorist acts against our country.
  • An enduring image of September 11th, 2001 is the sight of trade towers collapsing into angry clouds of dust chasing average Americans through the streets of NYC. Many in the developing world see in these clouds the vengeful ghosts of victims of American imperialism.
  • To even consider the terrorists’ concerns (US military out of Islam, Arab control of oil, security for Palestine ) is out of the question in today’s America. But the passions are strong enough and the technologies of mass horror are accessible enough that radicals/heroes/terrorists/martyrs from angry lands (where the most popular name for baby boys is Osama) will certainly strike again if no one listens to their concerns.
  • I’m perplexed by an electorate that seems to vote against its own interest. If America is a democracy, how can people vote in policies that aggravate an unjust and growing gap between rich and poor? It’s because a small minority can form a plurality.
  • A key to allowing the gap between rich and poor to continue to grow (with fewer and bigger winners and more losers) is the dumbing-down of the electorate. When poor people vote to abolish the “death tax” and 70 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein bombed NYC, democracy is sitting on an embarrassing foundation of ignorance.
  • There’s no longer enough money for public education, libraries, environmental protection, or parks. We can’t afford many things that we funded without question a generation ago. Are we producing less now? No. We live in the wealthiest country on the planet. We’re working harder and producing more than ever. There is as much money as ever. It’s just going to other things.
  • Europeans have a different take on the Social Contract. America gives it a Locke spin: rugged individualism, don’t fence me in, do what you want as long as it doesn’t hurt others. And Europeans go with Rousseau’s Social Contract: if we all give a little more than our share, society can live together nicely. To Locke, the government restricts freedom. To Rousseau, the government is us and serves our needs.
  • Hiking high in the Alps , I asked my Swiss friend Ollie why they are so docile when it comes to paying high taxes. Without missing a beat he replied, “What’s it worth to live in a country with no hunger, no homelessness, and children going to LA elementary schools where everyone has access to good health care and a top-quality education?” While America is embracing the Texas (“low tax, low service” state) model, Europe believes government can be both big and good.
  • While America is pressuring its European allies to spend more on their militaries, Europeans are sticking stubbornly to their budget priorities — roads, public transportation, health care, education, and social programs.
  • Europeans don’t have the opportunities to get rich that Americans do. And those with lots of money are highly taxed. But Europeans consume about a third of what Americans do and they claim they live better. Most Europeans like their system and believe they spend less time working, have less stress, enjoy longer life spans, take longer vacations, and savor more leisurely (and tastier) meals. They experience less violence and enjoy a stronger sense of community.
  • The Dutch have a decade of experience treating the recreational use of marijuana as a health problem rather than a criminal problem. They’ve stopped arresting people for smoking pot and a ten-year track record shows use has not gone up. Dutch drug enforcement officials consider coffee shops (where marijuana is sold and enjoyed) as a firewall stopping the abuse of hard drugs.
  • The majority of Europeans see American foreign policy as driven by corporate interests and baffling electoral needs. They believe America’s Cuban policy is designed to win the votes of Castro’s enemies in Florida and our Israel policy is driven by the demands of Jewish voters. No other nation is routinely outvoted in the United Nations 140 to 4. And Europeans find it amazing that when we lose a vote so thoroughly, we think we (along with our voting block: Israel, Micronesia, and the Marshal Islands) have it right and everyone else has it wrong.
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8 Responses to Rick Steves, Travel Expert, Says Americans Should Learn From Europe’s Socialism And Outlook

  1. Joe C. says:

    Apparently, the one thing that his travels didn’t teach him, which is probably the most important truth: if it were not for America’s individualism, innovation, military, and economy, their holier-than-thou societies wouldn’t exist. European socialism eeks out its existence because they free ride on the U.S.

  2. Greg Hunter says:

    Well I agree from my humble abode in Bucharest Romania and I can see many positive things that come from being under a communist regime, but I am sure I could not convince Joe C. Americans have a “God” given right to consume 1/4 of the worlds resources to feed the ego of 5% of the worlds population. If you do not think we have reaped enough reward for winning WWII, I think the world has other plans.

    We became the greatest country because we had no bombs dropped on us and we had plenty of cheap oil. Those days are over, but our hubris remains. Good Luck in the future USA Home of the Biggest Idiots in the World. We have had numerous wake up calls but the big fat obese ignorant Americans would rather launch nuclear weapons than change.

  3. Stan Hirtle says:

    Individualism and innovation, unrestrained, gave us the mortgage meltdoen and with it the economic meltdown. The US’s military unilateralism has poured a lot of money down a rathole in Iraq, killed a lot of people on both sides who should be alive, made a lot of enemies and made the world a more dangerous place. Now as other parts of the world such as China seek to have a portion of what we have, it becomes clear that there aren’t enough fossil fuels saved up to allow the whole world to have this lifestyle. In the meantime many children die from starvation and diseases. These divisions are unsustainable. People need to devise new ways to get along.

  4. Our democracy is a little over 200 years old Joe C. How did those European societies survive for thousands of years before we came along and gave them a free ride?

  5. Joe C. says:

    How did those European societies survive?

    Imperialism, monarchy, enslavement, feudalism, war, poverty

  6. So, sort of like us.

  7. Alias says:

    Anyone take note of the recent elections in Europe? Looks like Socialism is dead. Hmmmm. Whatever could be happening in these happy, everyone helps one another, countries. Maybe Steve’s the one who needs to learn from Europe’s rejection of the rotting stench of Socialism. Maybe Obama could learn with him.

  8. Stan Hirtle says:

    In Europe center left and center right parties take turns in office. Berlusconi wins, Berlusconi loses, Berlusconi wins again. In the recent elections, with comparatively low turnout, incumbents, often plagued by scandals and local issues, lost ground. European welfare systems are under pressure from the US just like US living standards are under pressure from low wages in China and Vietnam. And of course the US mortgage mess spread to Europe, whose banks were invested in mortgage derivatives, and sank the economy. Europe also has social pressures generated by immigration and of course much less cohesion that the US does. All of this works against incumbents, who were the center left and socialist parties. However the politics is much more inconclusive and stalemated than showing some sweeping ideological change.

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