John McCain accuses Barack Obama of wanting "European style socialism" in the US. If only.
Apart from the irony that the Bush administration is effectively nationalising the commanding heights of the economy in the course of the current economic crisis, one would have thought that this is - shall we say to be kind - an inappropriate time for a candidate to sing songs of praise to capitalism red in tooth and claw.
Gore Vidal and many others have quipped over the years that the US practices free enterprise for the poor and socialism for the rich, so what we are seeing now is not really a fundamental change in approach. Money in rich torrents for the banks and finance houses, and thin gruel for those about to be made homeless is on a par with food stamps that passed into legislation as a subsidy to US agriculture.
However, despite a natural tendency to disbelieve anything that McCain says in McCarthy-ite mode, it is indeed a truth that should be universally acknowledged that western Europe, even with the Thatcherite and Blairite hiccups, is indeed social democratic in its outlook. At the end of the second world war George Orwell predicted that western Europe was the most likely to succeed in establishing some form of democratic socialism, and he was right. Since 1950, western Europe has offered its citizens the highest combined standards of human, civil and social rights in world history. The west is red!
It may have been Franklin Delano Roosevelt who coined the slogan about the four freedoms, from fear and want, and of belief and speech, but Europe put them into effect while the US remained bogged down in 19th century laissez-faire.
However, McCain's attempt to conflate Obama with European socialism and both with Soviet-style communism is as self evidently absurd as his conflation of Joe the Plumber's fiscal fate with Exxon-Mobil's. Even European conservative parties are far to the left of Obama in their professed conviction that some things are too important to leave to free markets, that the pursuit of untrammeled greed alone will not benefit society as a whole, and that societies have a collective responsibility to ensure the welfare of their citizens.
Of course, European social-democracy is nothing like the Leninoid totalitarianisms that some on the left still see as the litmus test for socialism. My father, an eccentrically unrepentant fan of Stalin to his deathbed, had it right "that Uncle Joe understood the dictatorship of the proletariat - the workers need a bayonet up their arse".
The Georgian shared this view with American free-marketers who believe that workers will only be productive when forced to work for less money by the threatened lash of unemployment.
But we are at the end of a 60-year-old real-time experiment in the relative success of American laissez-faire and European social democracy. In 1945 Europeans were smaller and less healthy than the Americans. Some 60 years of European socialism later, the Dutch, for example are two inches taller than Americans. Europeans can expect longer life spans, and much less infant mortality than their erstwhile liberators, who are cursed with a free market health system that leaves 45 million people uninsured, and is the least efficient in the industrialised world. Not coincidentally, it is the most expensive - and the most profitable.
Freedom from fear, as Roosevelt advocated in 1945, was implemented to a much larger degree in Europe. Mothers can take serious, guaranteed, paid maternity leave, compared with Clinton's big step forward - unpaid family leave. Those socialist Europeans are guaranteed sick pay for months, years, on end and guaranteed vacation time, which they can take without fear of retribution. And the enterprises in which they work are prospering and solvent on the basis that employees deserve some measure of the prosperity and security that McCain assumes only CEOs need to motivate them.
If Obama and the Democrats were socialists, then Americans could enjoy the nearly universal health care of western Europe, not just in the sense of hospitals and doctors, but the health of the population - they would live longer for example instead of being 42nd in the world longevity league, they would have something higher than the 29th place in the world infant mortality tables.
American workers, who have been on an effective pay freeze since Ronald Reagan took office, could enjoy the steadily rising incomes of their European counterparts. Who knows, maybe the murder rate would drop to civilised world standards and the "socialist" US could relinquish its positions at the top of the world incarcerations and executions leagues.
Even justice suffers. At the time of the first OJ Simpson trial, I remember asking an American defence attorney which courts he would prefer, and he answered immediately, "if I were rich and guilty, I'd want to be tried here. If I were poor and innocent - I'd prefer Europe".
There have been steps backward as European governments persuaded themselves that Washington was showing the way economically. However, one can only hope that Europeans, particularly social democrats, can surely see further than the coast of Alaska and deduce that the main lesson from McCain's United States are negative ones. It is time to put the clock forward in Europe from where it stopped under the baneful influence of Reagan, Thatcher and Blair.