When Americans visit Europe, they see a lot to like: Charming boulevards, delicious food, and historic cities that feel safe.  When Europeans visit the U.S., it’s not so pretty: While major American cities are impressive, their inhabitants can be more than a little scary even after the sharp decline in crime rates.  From an American or European tourist’s point of view, Europe seems not just more aesthetic than the U.S., but more hospitable.

My thesis: On both sides of the Atlantic, tourists’ experiences are deeply misleading.  The fact that a country is (or isn’t) a nice place to visit often tells you less than zero about whether you would want to live there.

Where American tourists go wrong:

1. In European countries, historic downtowns of the premiere cities like Paris or Stockholm are by far the best places to live.  Most people in Europe don’t live in these areas, and can’t afford to.

2. Most of the Europeans who are lucky enough to live in the premiere cities can’t afford to frequently eat in the nice restaurants that delight foreign visitors.

3.  “Efficient public transportation” and bicycles may seem great to a tourist who eats in restaurants.  They’re not so great if you’re a local who needs to get groceries home to make dinner.  In bad weather, subways and bikes are downright awful.

Where European tourists go wrong:

1. They usually visit the most European places in the U.S. – especially New York City and San Francisco.  Since NYC and SF are basically uglier, scarier versions of the premiere European cities, it’s natural for tourists to go home with a negative impression.

2. However, very few Americans live in such cities – even if they can easily afford to.  Why not?  Because the natural habitat of the American – including most affluent Americans – is the suburb. 

It’s easy to see why tourists don’t go to the suburbs, because they’re places to live and work, not places to see.  But almost no one in Europe lives in places as comfortable and convenient as American suburbs: The houses are spacious, the cars are huge, cheap Big Box stores and chain restaurants are nearby, and (to quote South Park) there’s “ample parking day or night.”  Europeans can learn a lot more about the American psyche with a visit to a random CostCo than a visit to the Guggenheim.

3. If you’re thinking, “That’s great for the middle class, but useless for the poor,” you’re mistaken.  The American poor don’t live in McMansions or drive Hummers.  But by European standards, they have plenty of living space.  More importantly, they own cars, and can afford gas.  (For more info, here‘s an updated version of a great chapter from Julian Simon’s edited volume The State of Humanity).

If you’re very wealthy, of course, you can re-create an American living standard in the heart of Europe.  In fact, while Europe is a bad place to get rich, it is arguably the best place to be rich.  Consider: in exchange for steep taxes and tolls, European motorists get the ability and de facto right to drive 100 miles per hour.  If you’re in the top 5% of the American income distribution, that’s a pretty good deal.  For Bill Gates, it’s a steal.

I suspect that most Europeans – and many Americans – will dismiss my arguments as typical American jingoism.  But look at my anti-nationalist track record – for example here, here, here, and here.  I am proud not to be a loyal American.  Still, as a social scientist, I have to give credit where credit is due.  Europe is a better place for most people to visit.  But America is a better place for most people to live.