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Too Much is Not Enough, and Vice Versa

May 18, 2012

David Brooks is one of the relatively few thoughtful conservatives still writing in the popular media.  He’s capable of reason and insight, and contradicting him doesn’t reduce him to sputtering.

But no one’s perfect, and his column in today’s New York Times is a real baffler.

Brooks’s thesis is that the role of the political elite in Western society used to be to moderate public opinion – to temper short-term demands with long-term vision, to “police” the public’s “selfishness”:

“Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will.  Their job is to flatter and satisfy it.  A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims….  Give the customer what he wants.  The customer is always right.”

Voters, Brooks continues, have become accustomed to this new relationship with their leaders:

“Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements.  They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs….  [T]hey command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay.”

The shift from Madisonian Democracy to Madison Avenue Democracy has led Western governments to make promises they can’t keep.  The modern “welfare state” is going broke “trying to deliver these impossibilities.”

I was following along just fine until that last point.  Yes indeed, the information age has transformed our leaders from statesmen to poll-watchers.  From Webster to Weiner.  From Clay to Kyl.

But where did this conventional wisdom come from that the West is doomed, that social democracy is bust?  The euro is in trouble, no doubt, for reasons that have a lot to do with the contradiction between monetary unity and political separation, and not very much to do with the costs of caring responsibly for the citizenry.  Greece is having problems, and Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Italy are at varying degrees of risk.  But Germany remains one of the world’s most successful economies, without giving the slightest indication of interest in slicing up its social safety net.  France retains its triple-A bond rating – better than the U.S., thanks to John Boehner’s fealty to the Tea Party.  Sweden, Norway and Denmark seem to be doing rather well, and even Great Britain is surviving an ill-advised dose of conservative austerity.

As to the American safety net – the hard truth is, as much as conservatives hate to admit it, the American safety net may be beyond our willingness to afford it, but it is well within our ability to afford it.  If we raised taxes roughly to the levels of our most prosperous twentieth century years, there would be money to spare.

No, Mr. Brooks, I think your report of the demise of the Western welfare state has been greatly exaggerated.

But Brooks wasn’t done yet.  Remember how the problem was that voters demanded immediate satisfaction of every desire, and that our leaders have abandoned all but the effort to satisfy those desires?  In the very same column, on the very same day, Brooks asserts:

“The European ruling classes once had their power checked through daily contact with the tumble of national politics.  But now those ruling classes have built a technocratic apparatus, the European Union, operating far above popular scrutiny.  Decisions that reshape the destinies of families and nations are being made at some mysterious, transnational level.  Few Europeans can tell who is making decisions or who is to blame if they go wrong….”

Now you’ll immediately see that there are two problems here.  First, the transnational diagnosis for European ills has no relevance in the U.S. – or, while we’re at it, in Norway, Iceland or Switzerland, which don’t belong to the European Union.  Or in Australia or New Zealand.  Or Canada.

But more important is that the demise of the welfare state owes on the one hand to pathetically pandering elective national politicians while it is attributable on the other hand to insulated, unresponsive, unelected transnational elites.

When a person diagnoses two mutually inconsistent causes for an illness, it is worth asking whether there is in fact any illness.  If you were told that both eating a particular diet and not eating the same diet would cause the same condition, you would give up trying to prevent the condition and enjoy your food.

If Western social democracy is in decline both because we have politicians too responsive to the selfish desires of their constituents and because we have unresponsive bureaucrats making all the decisions, then it is at least fair to question whether Western social democracy is in decline at all.

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