Russell Shorto, a regular contributing writer for the New York Times Sunday magazine, offered a country-to-country comparison between the United States and Holland, where he's been living for the last 18 months. The story's headline is self-explanatory: "Going Dutch - How I Learned To Love The European Welfare State ." It was the most popular article on nytimes.com for a while, perhaps because it hit the sweet spot among the Times liberal readership, fusing sophisticated travelogue with Euro-socialist aspirations.
Picture me, if you will, as I settle at my desk to begin my workday, and feel free to use aVermeerimage as your template. The pale-yellow light that gives Dutch paintings their special glow suffuses the room. The interior is simple, with high walls and beams across the ceiling. The view through the windows of the 17th-century house in which I have my apartment is of similarly gabled buildings lining the other side of one of Amsterdam's oldest canals. Only instead of a plump maid or a raffish soldier at the center of the canvas, you should substitute a sleep-rumpled writer squinting at a laptop.
For 18 months now I've been playing the part of the American in Holland, alternately settling into or bristling against the European way of life. Many of the features of that life are enriching. History echoes from every edifice as you move through your day. The bicycle is not a means of recreation but a genuine form of transportation. A nearby movie house sells not popcorn but demitasses of espresso and glasses of Dutch gin from behind a wood-paneled bar, which somehow makes you feel sane and adult and enfolded in civilization.
Shorto brought up some free-market arguments, if only to dismiss them:
For the first few months I was haunted by a number: 52. It reverberated in my head; I felt myself a prisoner trying to escape its bars. For it represents the rate at which the income I earn, as a writer and as the director of an institute, is to be taxed. To be plain: more than half of my modest haul, I learned on arrival, was to be swallowed by the Dutch welfare state. Nothing in my time here has made me feel so much like an American as my reaction to this number. I am politically left of center in most ways, but from the time 52 entered my brain, I felt a chorus of voices rise up within my soul, none of which I knew I had internalized, each a ghostly simulacrum of a right-wing, supply-side icon:Ronald Reagan,Jack Kemp,Rush Limbaugh. The grim words this chorus chanted in defense of my hard-earned income I recognized as copied fromCharlton Heston's N.R.A. rallying cry about prying his gun from his cold, dead hands.
And yet as the months rolled along, I found the defiant anger softening by intervals, thanks to a succession of little events and awarenesses. One came not long ago. Logging into my bank account, I noted with fleeting but pleasant confusion the arrival of two mysterious payments of 316 euros (about $410) each. The remarks line said "accommodation schoolbooks." My confusion was not total. On looking at the payor - the Sociale Verzekeringsbank, or Social Insurance Bank - I nodded with sage if partial understanding. Our paths had crossed several times before. I have two daughters, you see. Every quarter, the SVB quietly drops $665 into my account with the one-word explanationkinderbijslag, or child benefit.
After admitting that "you don't have to be a Fox News commentator to sneer at what, in the midst of a global financial crisis, seems like Socialism Gone Wild," Shorto went on to defend it:
But there's more to it. First, as in the United States, income tax in theNetherlandsis a bendy concept: with a good accountant, you can rack up deductions and exploit loopholes. And while the top income-tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, the numbers are a bit misleading.
Shorto most cherishes the Dutch health-care system.
The Dutch are free-marketers, but they also have a keen sense of fairness. As Hoogervorst noted, "The average Dutch person finds it completely unacceptable that people with more money would get better health care." The solution to balancing these opposing tendencies was to have one guaranteed base level of coverage in the new health scheme, to which people can add supplemental coverage that they pay extra for. Each insurance company offers its own packages of supplements.
He belatedly took on the downside of this benign socialist paradise:
O.K., Enough euphoria. It's true that I have grown to appreciate many aspects of this system. But honesty compels me to reveal another side. There is a mood that settles into me here, deepening by degrees until its deepness has become darkness. It happens typically on a Sunday afternoon. I'll be strolling through a neighborhood on the outskirts of Amsterdam, or cycling in a nearby small town, and the calm, bland streets and succession of broad windows giving views onto identical interiors will awaken in my mind a line from Camus's "Myth of Sisyphus" that struck me to the core when I first read it as an undergraduate: "A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive."
Shorto even admitted that"one downside of a collectivist society" "is that people tend to become slaves to consensus and conformity and are not encouraged "to stand out or excel." But Shorto concluded his positive look at socialist Holland by passing the mike to a local author to claim his country is actually freer than the United States:
Geert Mak, the Dutch author, insisted that happiness is tied directly to the social system. We were sitting at his favorite cafe, a hangout of Dutch journalists since the end of World War II, and the genial, old-wood setting of the place, as well as its location, around the corner from the Dam and the center of the city's history, added a bit of luster to his words and reminded me, for the thousandth time, why I'm still here, despite the downside. "One problem with the American system," he said, "is that if you lose your job and are without an income, that's not just bad for you but for the economy. Our system has more security. And I think it makes our quality of life better. My American friends say they live in the best country in the world, and in a lot of ways they are right. But they always have to worry: 'What happens to my family if I have aheart attack? What happens when I turn 65 or 70?' America is the land of the free. But I think we are freer."