This book is aimed at comparing the U.S. government with the European governments in the context of social policy, that is, what the U.S. government on the one side and the European governments on the other side deem equitable and better for their societies. It includes political, economical and social philosophies on the role of the government in society, as well as concepts, terms and assumptions such as noblesse oblige, individualism, socialism, anomie, Marxism, capitalism, rationality, among others.
The first five chapters discuss the history of philosophies on social worldviews and assumptions, including but not limited to whether people are rational, the relationship between employer and employee, and religion. The author, James W. Russell, then includes two chapters – one on where the two different social policy perceptions – in the U.S. and in Europe – came from, and the other on alternative approaches on social policy, apparently as introduction to the contemporary issues. The next six chapters focus on poverty, unemployment, child support, elderly support, health care, followed by two chapters on ethnicity and incarceration rates.
While American exceptionalism, as presented in the book, calls for less government and more individualism in life, Europeans prefer what the author refers to as “solidarity among all citizens” (pp.45-47). Also compared is the U.S. and the European notion of egalitarianism – Americans perceive of egalitarianism as “equality of opportunity, with little concern about equality of outcome,” (p. 50) while to Europeans this notion also includes social status, that is, equality of outcome.
The author argues that the free market – even in the presence of charities and non-profit organizations – is unable to meet the needs of all people, leaving behind the elderly and children – two groups that, according to him, are not economically productive and need the workforce to take care of them – and therefore the government should step in and address inequality issues not just connected to them but also connected to other vulnerable populations, as well as to the workforce (one example includes providing child care to families with a newborn for a certain period of time, another calls for more benevolent unemployment benefits and maternity leaves) – such as enacting laws that are favorable to labor unions, thus decommodifying labor and social life and increasing wages and social benefits in the form of transfer payments, free education, and free health care, among other services.
James Russell advocates for decommodification in his book on the grounds that this process will address growing inequality in the U.S. He supports it by citing data on the OECD countries of the U.S. and western Europe, among other data, where inequality (p. 74) on not just income (p. 68) but also on union density (p. 70) and collective bargaining coverage are shown to be significantly different from countries in western Europe, with very few exceptions. The author also includes discussion on relative poverty and absolute poverty (pp. 79-81) – the former meaning having enough income to support oneself but not enough to live quality social life which potentially leads to disintegration or less opportunities for integration.
For a sociology course, this book contributes to a better understanding on cost effectiveness. It implies that there are cases where the free market, charities and non-profit organizations cannot address the people’s basic needs without necessarily meaning that those who are left out are lazy or undeserving. One example is health care in the U.S. (pp. 123-132) where with limited government intervention expenditure is almost twice as high as that in the western European countries, yet people in western Europe have a higher life expectancy than people in the U.S.
The book is abundant with weaknesses. The author apparently shows left-wing socialist bias repudiating the American way of thinking about the role of government in our society. While James W. Russell aimed his book at addressing counter-arguments, he rarely used raw data but mainly applied philosophical arguments instead. The book never seems to discuss the high corporate taxes in the United States compared to Europe, neither did it discuss the budget deficits in the European countries that we are often presented with on the today’s news. One of the most consistent arguments in opposition to the progressive taxation – punishment of success – is never mentioned in the book but instead relies on the French phrase “noblesse oblige” (nobility obliges) which implies that the more fortunate should help the less fortunate.
Furthermore, Russell W. James fails to introduce the reader (let alone discuss) to any economical assumptions or philosophies – a very important aspect of discussing inequality from where questions about society may be answered. One of them is the trade between work and leisure, that is, would individual A trade 8 hours of leisure for money that he or she is capable of earning for that time.
Moreover, there are at least two inaccuracies to be mentioned on the book. One of them is on employment. While he mentions that people who are employed part-time in the United States are not counted toward the unemployment rate in an effort to show how dubious that rate is in the United States, he skips that part on Europe. Another inaccuracy is the tax rate. Not every European country has progressive tax rate and not every European country has benevolent social programs, if any.
Transition from communism to capitalism is another aspect in our society that the author doesn’t appear to have written about in his book. His reflections go no further than saying that people from eastern Europe emigrated to western Europe because there were no jobs in eastern Europe after the fall of communism there but he doesn’t mention anything about emigration during the Cold War from communist to capitalist countries and why there were (and still are) rarely opposite cases.
These are just some of the many weaknesses in this book.
Nevertheless, I would recommend to everyone interested in inequality and social policy because it contains interesting concepts to think about – including but not limited to noblesse oblige, social inclusion and feudalism, and anything related to these numerous concepts. However, I would recommend the individual interested in the topic to first get more acquainted with basic introductory-level microeconomics and macroeconomics.