America Has Lost Its Way

Will Hutton is a skillful surfer of the Zeitgeist. In 1995, his U.K. best seller "The State We're In" nicely captured the mood of hopeful anticipation as the British electorate prepared to vote out the Conservatives after 18 years and bring in Tony Blair's rehabbed Labour Party. Now he's riding another, bigger, fashionable wave: America-bashing. In "The World We're In" (Little Brown, London), Hutton embraces a series of arguments that are increasingly popular in Europe, especially among left-wing intellectuals: as a social and economic model, America has lost its luster. Europe is a better model for both a just society and a thriving economy, so Britain needs to loosen its ties to the United States and strengthen those to Europe.

All these arguments are worthy of discussion. But Hutton--a former editor of the left-wing Sunday Observer and now chief executive of the Work Foundation--is a provocateur. So he takes the new theology of the European left and ratchets it up to a rant. Hutton's America is a failed society, "the most unequal society in the industrialized West." As an economic model it is a failure as well; the obsession with short-term profits to satisfy shareholders has drained U.S. industry of innovation and long-term planning. Worse, American liberalism has collapsed, leaving the United States defenseless against Reagan-Bush conservatives, who are emptying the country of whatever good it had.

Hutton applies the same torque wrench to Britain and Europe. Having dissected the American model and found it lacking, he wants us to believe that Britain's only choice is to ditch America and become a full partner in Europe (read: join the single currency). Hutton prescribes Europe as the antidote to the American disease. The social-welfare "settlement" incorporated in Western European societies is superior to America's you're-on-your-own dogma. Government involvement in public services is necessary and good, writes Hutton. Europe, unlike workaholic America, has found a sensible and productive balance between leisure and work.

To his ranting Hutton brings a formidable intelligence, meticulous analysis and prodigious research. This is particularly true when he writes on economic matters. He argues that U.S. big business is sacrificing long-term gains and creativity to the ephemeral bottom line of shareholder value. To help make his case, Hutton effectively compares America's Boeing (diminished in its drive to "enrich executives and Wall Street") with Europe's Airbus (eschewing short-term profits in order to become "the most successful aircraft manufacturer in the world").

Where Hutton goes wobbly is in his discussion of Britain and the European Union. Britain is not as slavishly pro-American as he suggests. The strength of the British economy--under a Blair government run by both Atlanticists and Europeans--undermines his argument that Britain must choose between "aping" America and succumbing to its innate Europeanness. And though there may be something to be said for Europe as a countervailing force to American hegemony, the Continent seems in no position to rescue anybody from anything these days. Hutton's optimism about the state Europe is in is wildly misplaced. When he discusses Europe his characteristic thoroughness and critical insight melt away under his affection for European social democracy. In the process, Hutton's Europe escapes the sort of scrutiny he imposes on America.

Perversely, Hutton ignores issues that are at the heart of Europe's weakness. One is immigration. Until European politicians come to grips with immigration--as well as its associated issues, globalization and crime--the "United Europe of States," as he calls it, won't be united. Hutton also ignores the whole question of European defense and security arrangements. One of the reasons Europe can afford the welfare state is that it spends much less on defense than the United States.

Hutton's scholarship suffers from being twisted into an attack matrix. And though the book's argumentative heft is imposing, readers are forced to put up with ivy-tower excess. Hutton is not one to condescend to popularize a subject matter for lesser mortals (to wit: "The Rawlsian thesis is well known and I will rehearse it only in brief").

Indeed, "The World We're In" isn't exactly beach reading. But Hutton has once again proved himself to be a well-armed controversialist--and one with excellent timing. Had the book been published closer to September 11, it would have seemed more strident than it is. Now "The World We're In" will get a fair, if not necessarily warm, reception.