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I’m spending the morning  (and now part of the afternoon) on one of those fancy buses that has an internet connection. Since I didn’t have the foresight to download an episode of Battlestar Galactica, I’ve got nothing better to do than read tomorrow’s New York Times, and to transcribe my internal monologue on PoMoCo. A piece in the Magazine caught my eye: Russell Shorto’s two-cheers for what might be called the Dutch model of capitalist welfare state. The argument strikes me, as much for what it does not say are for what it does, as a pretty instructive guide to bien pensant thinking in the Age of Obama.

It seems that Mr. Shorto, who’s written some works of popular history, has acquired a post at an American cultural institute in Amsterdam. Since settling in, he’s learned to appreciate the things that Americans in Europe usually enjoy: quaint buildings, good coffee, traveling by bicycle, and so on. But Mr. Shorto is not just a tourist. As a semi-permanent resident, he’s got to pay taxes. And the bill is not small. The rate on a comfortable but apparently moderate income is 52%

That sounds like a lot. But Mr. Shorto points out that many taxpayers get cash rebates to do things like buy schoolbooks, and that a good accountant can easily find deductions. And the services! Child-care is reimbursed. Health-care is, by American standards, nearly free. The doctors even make housecalls. Once you count state and property taxes, there may not be much difference between the tax burdens in the Netherlands and in the US. Surely this is a system from which we can learn, if not imitate wholesale.

The problem is buried a several paragraphs later, following a complaint about the short-opening hours of Dutch shops (having lived in Germany, which has similar restrictions, I can agree that this is extremely annoying). And that’s the fact that Dutch system arose in response to some very particular social pressures, and may not survive a change in their equilibrium. I mean religion. But religion is something the bobos of Amsterdam, like those of New York, would prefer to ignore.

According to Shorto, the Dutch welfare state arose in a context of cultural homogeneity and was inspired by centuries-long experience in the cooperative management of Low Country’s water problems. That’s not quite right. Since the expulsion of the Spanish in the 17 th century, the Dutch have enjoyed a high degree of linguistic and social homogeneity. But they have traditionally been divided by sectarianism: at first between Calvinists and Catholics; and later between Calvinists, Catholics, and secular liberals. At a few points, these divisions threatened to boil over into civil war. But mostly they generated peaceful but essentially parallel societies, whose members did not have much to do with each other in daily life.

The Dutch model arose as a way of guaranteeing this modus vivendi. Everyone would have equal access to certain basic services. But at the same time, the government would provide for a sectarian infrastructure of schools, universities, and even hospitals. This was called pillarization. While pillarization preceded establishment of the modern welfare state following WWII, it is the essential background to the system Mr. Shorto admires.

I’m sure that he knows this. Nevertheless, he passes over its theologico-political origins rather lightly with the observation that “A broad social-welfare system works if everyone assumes that everyone else is playing by the same rules. Newcomers, with different ways of life and expectations, threaten it. This is one reason the recent waves of non-Western immigration have caused so much disturbance. Can such a system work in a truly multiethnic society?”

Culture and language are, of course, one issue. The Dutch are, understandably, far from enthusiastic about providing lavish services to people who, in many cases, do not speak Dutch and are at best ambivalent about the social freedoms for which Amsterdam is famous. But the accommodation of Islam is an even more serious challenge. For its more outspoken advocates makes political and moral demands that are incompatible with the Dutch version of separate but equal. The Dutch model does not require ethnic homogeneity. But it does depend on the willingness of the recognized social groups to demand no more from the state than their counterparts—and that they recognize the same basic hierarchy of goods.

That’s not say we can learn nothing from the Netherlands. But  what is the real lesson? It’s striking not only that Mr. Shorto doesn’t mention the religious problem, but that he doesn’t quote  anyone who does. I suspect that isn’t because the Dutch don’t care, but because he spoke to only American expats and Amsterdam yuppies.

The story would likely be different if Mr. Shorto had ridden his bicycle beyond the Dam to consult, say, residents of the “social housing” whose public-private management he praises. But the results would likely have been harder to swallow with one’s Sunday morning coffee. 

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