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9 Countries That Do It Better: Why Does Europe Take Better Care of Its People Than America?

The world's wealthy democracies have somewhat different priorities, leading to some very different outcomes for their citizens.

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The Wall Street Journal ’s editorial board got terribly excited a few years back when a study by a right-wing think tank in Sweden “found that if Europe were part of the U.S., only tiny Luxembourg could rival the richest of the 50 American states in gross domestic product per capita.” A “rising tide still lifts all boats,” the Journal reminded us, “and U.S. GDP per capita was a whopping 32% higher than the EU average in 2000, and the gap hasn’t closed since.”

As far as the raw data go, that’s true. (But several individual European states have GDP per capita that are either higher than, or comparable to, that enjoyed in the United States.) The thing is, those data tell only part of the story about a country’s economic health. We do have different priorities, and European workers expect six to eight weeks of vacation, paid sick days, and fewer hours of overtime—Europeans simply don’t work themselves to the bone as we do. American men and women worked an average of 41 hours per week in 2005, while European men averaged 38 hours and European women only 30. As the OECD noted, “As for holiday and paid leave entitlements, the striking differences between Europe and the United States (including sickness and maternity) obviously explain some of the transatlantic gap in annual working hours.”

When you factor in the difference in time spent on the job, the income gap essentially disappears. Now, is this simply a matter of Americans’ having a superior work ethic, unblunted by the perfidy of the nanny state? Well, no. Overworked Americans are miserable. According to research cited by Boston College’s Sloan Work and Family Research Network, four in 10 workers who work a lot of extra hours say they “feel very angry toward their employers,” versus 1 percent who work only a few extra hours. Just 3 percent of two-income couples who work long hours said they were content with the effort, and nine out of 10 U.S. workers said either, “My job requires that I work very hard,” or “I never seem to have enough time to get everything done on my job.”

So, again, what we see is merely a difference in priorities.

Note: Unless linked above, all data are from the OECD's downloadable Excel files found here. A correction was made to this article after publication.

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