Europe’s Katrina-in-Waiting

As Europeans watched President Bush stumble over the death, destruction, and chaos wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, some could not help patting themselves on the back and saying, “Thank God for our social solidarity.”

True, no European country worth its salt would ever allow its citizens to fall into such dire poverty that they literally could not escape from their homes in the face of a natural disaster. And all Europeans – not only those on the left – were truly shocked and appalled by Katrina’s vivid demonstration that there apparently is no bottom for America’s poor.

But this concern and sensibility is a little too self-congratulatory, for it allows Europeans to gloss over the very real problems they now have with their own vaunted social solidarity.

For one thing, while Europe’s doctrine of social solidarity preaches fairness and equality, it masks an “insiders’ society” that is spectacularly unjust at the upper end of the income spectrum. Welfare-state elites typically get the best doctors, the best concert seats, the best flats in the best neighborhoods, and so on, because of Europe’s stubborn refusal to use prices and the market mechanism to allocate key goods and services. Outsiders find it difficult to compete when “who gets what” depends on knowing the right people.