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Friday, August 25, 2006

 

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Opinion

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''European Model is No Model for Us''

I picked up Jeremy Rifkin's latest book, "The European Dream" hoping to be convinced that the continent's approach to government and economics, increasingly the model for public policy in the California Legislature, has some redeeming qualities.

It may, but they weren't apparent from Rifkin's tome.

The best-selling author's bottom line is that American individualism is being overtaken by the more collectivist European approach, where government and business are conducted in a cooperative atmosphere that Rifkin says will lead to more prosperity and happiness for all.

Unfortunately, the foundation upon which Rifkin builds his entire analysis about the future, perhaps his entire world view, is fatally flawed. He misunderstands the basic character of the free market system he so harshly condemns.

"Markets, by their very nature, are adversarial forums," Rifkin writes. "They are arm's-length exchanges where each party enters into the negotiation with the idea of maximizing his own self-interest at the expense of the other party."

This is simply wrong. Whether they are selling shoes or cars, computer software or legal services, the actors in a market system are trying to reach a position of mutual benefit.

One will part with his money and the other with his goods or services only if both are satisfied that they will be better off after the exchange. And particularly for the seller, the desire is not to screw the other party, as Rifkin asserts, but to make them so deliriously happy that they will return to buy more of what you are selling and recommend you to their friends and associates.

But after setting up this straw man, Rifkin tries to knock it down with a definition of the new European capitalism that more accurately reflects the values of the American system he sees as on the wane.

"Networks," he says, "operate on an entirely different principle. Each party enters into the relationship based on the supposition that by optimizing the benefits of the other parties and the group as a whole, one's self-interest will be maximized in the process."

This reversal is typical of a book where up is often down and black is white. Rifkin, for example, insists that the European Union is a cutting-edge example of bottom up, decentralized government.

Whenever possible, he says, governing decisions "ought to be made as far down and as close as possible to the communities and constituents most affected by the decisions."

Unfortunately, there is little evidence in Rifkin's book, in the actions of the European governments or in the proposals by those Americans and Californians who believe in the European model that they really trust communities and individuals to make such decisions.

From health care to transportation, education to science, they are instead seeking to create a top-down, cradle-to-casket cocoon in which the highest levels of government make as many decisions as possible for us.

Given these contradictions within the book itself, one must view with skepticism Rifkin's overarching comparison of the European and American dreams.

The European version, he says, is contained in the proposed constitution, which he predicted in the book would soon be ratified, failing to foresee that the citizens of France and the Netherlands would unceremoniously reject it.

"If we were to sum up the gist of the document, it would be a commitment to respect human diversity, promote inclusivity, champion human rights and the rights of nature, foster quality of life, pursue sustainable development, free the human spirit for deep play, build a perpetual peace, and nurture a global consciousness," he writes.

"Together, these values and goals, which appear in many different forms throughout the constitution, represent the warp and woof of a fledgling European Dream."

The American Dream, based on private property, individual freedom and personal responsibility, "is a very old dream," he writes, "and becoming increasingly irrelevant in the new era of globalization."

In his 1979 book, "The Emerging Order," Rifkin predicted the imminent onset of frightening global scarcity.

In 1994, he predicted "The End of Work," in which computers and automation would create mass unemployment. Despite these and other futurist misfires, however, he remains a leading intellectual and commentator of the American left, so he shouldn't be dismissed as a crank.

This book is worth reading if for no other reason than to better understand the underpinnings of the movement Rifkin reflects. And it does contain some valid insights about the global economy and our changing world.

But once Rifkin leaves the realm of fact and moves to philosophy, he is on much shakier ground.

Go back, or read the latest opinions:

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''About That Free Trade…''

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''A Flat Tax for Developing Countries''

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