The European model of social democracy has its virtues, but it has always depended on the wealth created by American laissez-faire. As a recent economic paper entitled “Can’t We All Be More Like Scandinavians?” points out, it’s easier for smaller countries to afford a more “cuddly” form of capitalism if big countries like the United States are driving global economic growth. And the price of a permanently larger government — in growth lost, private-sector jobs left uncreated, breakthroughs forgone — is much higher for a country of our size and influence than it is for a Sweden or a France.

What’s more, we would be paying this increased price at a very different demographic and economic moment than when the European welfare states were built, or for that matter when our own entitlement system was established.

It’s one thing for a young, fast-growing nation — like the America of the 1960s — to embrace a permanently larger public sector. It’s quite another for a graying society with a stagnant economy and a sinking birthrate to do the same. There’s a risk of a vicious cycle, in which a shrinking working-age population bears the burden of growing old-age entitlements, which in turn discourages precisely the kind of risk-taking and family formation required to keep the system solvent.