Is America Just an Oversized Ireland?

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In a review of Fintan O’Toole’s Ship of Fools, a book about the boom and bust of the Irish economy, Henry Farrell summarizes the pathologies of Irish political culture and then concludes:

Yet is American politics so very different? Irish politics is profoundly shaped by perceptions regarding the difference between those who have influence within the system and those who are relegated to the periphery….This is as plausible a description of the United States as of Ireland. In the U.S. system, too, the broad imperatives of globalization are marshaled by well-connected and “untouchable” business interests to defeat regulatory oversight, of the financial system and elsewhere. The American version of these interests is less roughly spoken than its Irish equivalents, and wears better suits, but otherwise it is not very different from the forces that brought Ireland to near collapse. If Ireland once seemed like a miniature America, America looks increasingly like an oversized Ireland. A comparison that was once all too self-congratulatory now has disturbing implications.

I had a hard time staying interested in Ship of Fools even though it’s a short read. That’s not because it’s an especially bad book — though I would have preferred a little bit more analytical meat to go with the unrelenting outrage — but because if you covered up the names you could have fooled me into thinking it was just another book about America’s financial collapse. If O’Toole is to be trusted, the only real difference is that American politicians will generally be prosecuted if they’re caught in obvious and provable corruption while Irish politicians aren’t. Beyond that, though, the political culture is pretty much the same, the financial culture is pretty much the same, the real estate boom was pretty much the same, and all the rhetoric that supported it was pretty much the same.

Obviously that’s not O’Toole’s fault, and certainly the details are often interesting in their own right. But basically, “Ireland was a mini-America” pretty much sums up the whole thing. Move along, nothing to see here.

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