CEI in Europe: Travelblog 6–Berlin, Germany

One of the teachers at the recently-completed Language of Liberty camps was fond of telling students a certain joke: “Do you know what the most frightening sentence in the English language is? I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

The students in Portugal and Poland didn’t laugh. They didn’t really see the humor in government trying to help people.

We’re in Berlin now. The Sulejow Language of Liberty camp has ended, and we’ve stopped in Berlin for one night before returning home to D.C. The ghost of the wall that once separated this city is eerily memorialized in the fragments still here. The East Side Gallery is a kaleidoscope of political art and irreverent graffiti. The Brandenburg Gate stands solemn, alone, like a doorway to a room that no longer exists.

We have lunch with the director of Berlin think tank. He asks us if we’ve noticed anything interesting about the police in Berlin. “Their priority is de-escalation,” he explains. “That’s what they’re trained for — de-escalating situations before they become violent.” He says policemen try to avoid making arrests whenever possible, even when they’re insulted or threatened. “More or less, they really are just there to help,” he says. “It’s a bit different than in America, no?”

If the American government is a paternal government — a strict, protective disciplinarian — then most European governments are decidedly maternal. They provide care. They nurture. They purport to do for the people what the people cannot or will not do for themselves.

Cities across the European continent are scarred by the vestiges of fascist and communist regimes. There is a real and recent memory here of what it means to be truly frightened of one’s government. There is also a collective memory of revolution. It’s a memory made manifest in monuments, museums, and cemeteries. It’s permanently sewn into the fabric of political language. American Tea Partiers may have taken their name from revolutionaries, but in Europe, revolution is more than a story of national origin. It’s something many of these cities experienced in the 20th century. The memories of oppression and revolution, so patent in the urban landscape of Berlin and other cities, are a constant reminder of what happens when state power ceases to be a tool of the people.

Europe’s history of tyranny is what sets the tone for the current citizen-government relationship here. Governments are careful not to dictate or demand. Instead, they guide; they de-escalate. And with the experience of oppressive paternalism now largely behind them, the new European generation gladly accepts democratic maternalism. The students we met at the Language of Liberty camps think that their governments are flawed, but essentially good. They don’t really understand the anti-nanny-state angst of Americans. Most of these students don’t want to scale back state power; they just want to fix state power. They want to help their governments to better help their people.

This is why there’s a disconnect between American and European political discourse — why the classical liberal movement is floundering in the home countries of Friedrich Hayek and Frederic Bastiat. European governments don’t wear heavy boots anymore; they wear kid gloves. When the people and the state are in tandem — finally happy with each other after an unhappy past — the people are overwhelmingly and dangerously tempted to allow the state to suffocate them with maternal care.