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I’m currently in a city rife with drugs and rampant with prostitution–yet I feel safer here than I did in either London or Paris. In fact, over 90 percent of Amsterdam’s residents report that they feel safe in their city, while the denizens of Paris, London, Dublin, and Berlin gave their respective cities lower marks. Only Scandinavian cities such as Copenhagen and Stockholm have a better perceived sense of safety.

It’s remarkable–much to the chagrin of social conservatives–how legalizing marijuana and prostitution, and recognizing same-sex marriage (circa. 2001) haven’t unraveled the social fabric of this tiny, quiet Northern European outpost. A small trading village in the 12th century, Amsterdam grew into a major European port over the centuries by luring foreigners with its relative tolerance. It’s still a small city by international standards, counting only 1.36 million in its entire metropolitan area.

So how does modern-day Gomorrah avoid collapsing into a giant gaping sink hole that leads to hell? How, in other words, can the low crime rate be explained?

Actually, statistically speaking, Amsterdam is the crime-infested cesspool imagined by the Religious Right. It has the third highest number of registered crimes per 1000 residents among large European cities. The number of registered crimes per 1000 is an entirely different metric from the measure of perceived security I cited above. More people report crimes in Amsterdam than in other European cities, but its citizens still feel safer than those in Paris or London. It’s just that people in Amsterdam are more likely to report crimes. Oh, and about 9000 bike thefts–a significant seven percent chunk of the total–are registered by the police each year. The thieves here, like the people, love bikes.

An intelligent social conservative (one of few) would interject: Firstly, Amsterdam does indeed have high crime, as the numbers show. This conservative would also add that Amsterdam cheats on its crime stats, since by legalizing the sale of marijuana and sex it effectively underreports crime statistics in relation to other European cities, which do count prostitution- and drug-related offences in their books.

And yes, the conservative is right on both counts. Statistics don’t lie. But that raises the larger question of what is a crime, anyway? (What is “is,” anyway?) We call certain acts crimes because they either they have a deleterious social effect–gambling, prostitution–or because they harm others–murder, rape–or because they do both.

In the U.S., weed is illegal because it is presumed to have a negative impact on society by fostering a criminal drug trade and by impacting the health and productivity of its citizens. The Netherlands’ experience undercuts those two assumptions. If you legalize it, there’s no criminal supply chain, and thus a smaller drug trade. As for health and productivity arguments, they’re easily challenged. Gross Domestic Product per hour–how much is created by hour worked measured in U.S. dollars–is 55.5 and 55.3 in the Netherlands and the U.S., respectively. I’m not even going to bother comparing life expectancy between the two countries; America’s failing health care system allows me to assume the worst.

With no practical health or productivity drawbacks of legalizing marijuana, why hasn’t the U.S. or any other Western country legalized marijuana? It boils down to the fact that the Dutch are just more lax. As with weed, they’re also less concerned about safety–a perception that in turn fosters a safer, freer society.

Ceci n’est pas socialisme

Ça, c’est socialisme

I’ve developed an irrational hatred for France’s Société Nationale des Chemins de fer (SNCF). Since I’ve been here, its ticket machines have broken down, the trains have been late, and the metro system has been skipping stations because of “construction.”

Canada 1, France 0

The Daily Beast’s Peter Beinart has a new book out that’s receiving a lot of attention. “The Icarus Syndrome,” which is a history of 20th century America–and subtitled, A History of American Hubris–identifies three periods of hubris in American foreign policy, from Wilson’s stillborn peace in Paris, the blunder in Vietnam, and finally to the Iraqi quagmire. His thesis is a simple one: that America’s “hubris,” or delusion, led it to commit grave errors abroad. The praise for the book lies not in his facile conclusion, but in his synthesis and eloquence, according to The Economist.

An excerpt from the book can be found on The Daily Beast’s website. Here’s a gem:

In different ways, all these presidents understood that in foreign policy, as in life, there are things you may fervently desire but cannot afford. And in foreign policy, the recognition that resources are limited, and precious, is even more important since you are not merely spending other people’s money; you are spilling other people’s blood.

This is Great Britain, the land that gave us habeaus corpus, the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights–the land that gave us civil liberties, in essence. So it struck me as paradoxical to find, as I keenly took pictures of Trafalgar Square and Westminster, that I wasn’t the only one with the camera. Closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras are hunched atop lamp posts all across London, creating the impression that you’re never beyond Big Brother’s reach. “The average Londoner going about his or her business may be monitored by 300 CCTV cameras a day,” according to the New Statesman.

Cameras, gazing

There is, of course, a Londoner who would be mortified–were he not dead–at the sight of those white cameras gazing into the lives of the citizens of his city. George Orwell wrote of a dystopian future in his novel, 1984, in which a totalitarian regime, known only as “the Party,” controls virtually all aspects of its citizens’ lives. We are today a bit closer to that dystopia. Big Brother’s suspicious eye is on those lamp posts, watching Britons as they go to work, to school, to wherever they go through the lens of CCTV cameras. There are even Minority Report-style CCTV cameras that take a “proactive” approach to spying by alerting authorities if someone has loitered too long or if what it thinks are drug dealers meet up.

But London’s residents aren’t outraged by the cameras, which they have come to accept as perhaps the price of security. On balance, that’s not entirely surprising: after the 7/7 bombings and with the burgeoning threat of terrorism, it’s understandable that they’d tolerate unobtrusive cameras in exchange for some measure of security. The cameras do, however, leave you feeling like you’re in a police state–and with that feeling, you get the type of mutual suspicion and fear that exist in totalitarian societies. For instance, check out this notice outside the Central Criminal Court:

It reads, “Terrorists use surveillance to help plan attacks, taking photos and taking notes about security measures like the location of CCTV cameras. If you see someone doing that, we need to know.” Oops, I just did that. Arrest me?

The new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition has vowed to curb some of the excesses that occurred under Labour, including “the abolition of ID cards and the children’s database…, the further regulation of CCTV and the restoration of right to protest.” But the CCTV cameras, though regulated, are here to stay. Outside the Foreign Office, I saw this:

CCTV at Foreign Office

Europe is poor. That’s my impression after spending the day strolling Parisian streets, and then hopping on a train to London later in the evening. The observation isn’t an uncommon one, nor is it the first time I’ve made it. And by poor, I don’t mean that there are impoverished beggars stalking tourists–though the gypsies do a pretty good job of it–but that the houses are smaller, the roads are narrower, and that the infrastructure isn’t in the best shape. On the train in from Charles de Gaulle, I saw laundry drying on balconies–a sight unseen in North America, where most houses have energy-guzzling dryers.

The Atlantic‘s Megan McArdle once remarked on that difference between North America and Europe, critiquing Paul Krugman’s–and the American Left’s–fascination with European social democracy. “[T]he standard of living in any given profession is much lower. Preserving London’s dazzling antique architecture has meant that most of the people I knew had much longer and more expensive commutes than their American counterparts would,” wrote McArdle. I noticed that today. Paris and London are beautiful, but the cost of preserving the historic buildings has meant sacrificing on newness. With fewer new buildings, there are probably fewer jobs and less room for the kind of enterprise that the U.S. and Canada have. Paris’ Gare du Nord, a major train hub, for instance, was magnificently built in the mid-nineteenth century. But housing the station in a centuries-old building limits the quality of infrastructure. On a hot Saturday afternoon, a non-air-conditioned station was not the best place to wait for several hours. And for some reason, France’s glorious bureaucratic state has placed only a few benches in a station that sees 180 million visitors a year. (Suffice it to say, waiting there for hours was not fun.)