Don’t Copy Europe!

by Burt on March 6, 2013

In 1850, the U.S. was a second-rate power. We were way behind Britain in steel, railroads, and textiles. In fact, it was 1848 before we finished building our first large railroad with American-made rails. Before that we just imported most of our rails from Britain. In the area of science and chemicals, the Germans were the leaders. They invented or perfected many chemical products in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including bromine, aspirin, and novacaine.

The good news for us was that the U.S. was not Europe. We could take those inventions and make them work on a large scale in ways the Europeans could never imagine. In steel, Britain may have dominated the world in 1850, but by 1900, an American immigrant, Andrew Carnegie, had figured out how to mass-produce steel so effectively that his company made more steel than was made in the entire nation of Great Britain. In chemicals, the Germans may have invented aspirin and dominated markets for bromine, but Herbert Dow figured out how to make and sell aspirin and bromine more cheaply than any German corporation. Dow, like Carnegie, ultimately triumphed over the Europeans.

The Europeans constantly thought in old patterns. They wanted to hold onto markets, not expand them. Europeans tended toward monopolies, toward cartels where they would divide up markets and split the profits. The Europeans were slow to innovate when they had the lead.

Americans, by contrast, were imaginative and creative under pressure. When the Germans threatened to knock Dow out of business by cutting prices for bromine, Dow simply let them cut prices and then bought their cheap product and resold it on the open market. When British steel barons bragged to Carnegie that their blast furnaces for making steel could last for a generation, Carnegie tore his blast furnaces apart and built newer and better ones.

Sure, we Americans make errors, but we often overcome them and then we try to do the impossible–and sometimes we succeed. When our leaders go around Europe apologizing and saying we want to copy European methods, that signifies that we may be falling into a national decline. We got where we were by watching the Europeans, studying their methods, and then doing something different–and something better.

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