The Importance of Noncomprehensive International Comparisons

I had a curious exchange on Twitter the other day with James Pethokoukis. Basically my point was that the French health care system is much better than the American health care system and his counterargument was that the United States is substantially richer than France.

Interestingly, when the United States isn’t one of the two countries being compared, people seem to not fall into this fallacy. Nobody denies that Denmark is richer and has better economic policy than Italy or that Italy has tastier food, better weather, and more amazing renaissance paintings than Denmark. Danes could learn a lot from Italy about making pizza, which isn’t the same as saying that Danish people should strive to make their country “like Italy.”*

I happen to think the United States of America is a great country and has some of the very best economic policy in the whole wide world. That’s one of the reason we’re so rich and successful. And it’s a story that liberals ignore at their peril. At the same time, to say that American policy on the whole is better than French policy (in France, for example, a supermarket can’t be open on Sunday afternoons) doesn’t mean there aren’t specific things France is doing better. Their passenger trains are better than ours, for example, and their health care system is better. Don’t take my word for it—ask the editor of America’s premiere libertarian magazine or the OECD, which notes (PDF) that “France even scores best among the OECD countries on amenable mortality – that is, mortality that could be avoided thanks to timely and effective health care.”

Which is all just to say that it becomes unnecessarily difficult to learn valuable lessons from abroad if every international comparison is reduced to a totalizing culture war controversy about the overall merits of the United States or the American way of life.

*Clarification, Aug. 16: An earlier version of this item got Italy and Denmark mixed up here.