Saturday, August 30, 2003


In a modern democracy, any political party that aspires to win power through the ballot box has to be a centrist party. You have to do your best to offer something to everybody. That’s how you get most votes. Winning over some of the other guy’s voters is the name of the game. Being any kind of a purist just means you will be out of power and thus in no position to push ANY agenda.

An amusing result of this situation is that you sometimes have to go out of your way to do things that you do NOT believe in. For instance, Leftists have to show that they can control government spending or they will not get any conservative votes and conservatives have to support welfare measures of they will not get any left-leaning votes.

So we have the situation today when GWB got into power as a “caring” conservative and promptly tried to prove it by the sort of bone-headed policies that the Left advocate -- such as protecting inefficient steel producers at the cost of American consumers, supporting a potentially huge blowout in Medicare costs and turning a budget surplus into a deficit. Before we get too mad with GWB, however, it is worth noting that the same sort of thing has been going on for a long time -- as Jerry Frankel points out. If GWB’s rhetoric is conservative and his policies socialist, it is also true that past Democrat Presidents have matched their interventionist rhetoric with substantial cutbacks in actual government intervention. Carter and Clinton did more deregulation than GWB has. They did it because America is a conservative country and to impress the American public they needed to do conservative deeds to counterbalance their Leftist rhetoric.

The same has happened in Australia where nominally socialist governments under Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating made enormous changes towards deregulation and privatization and in New Zealand it was the socialist Lange government that cut back welfare and freed up the economy.

And even in the late 19th century, Germany’s Prince Otto von Bismarck, the man who created the world’s first welfare State -- with old-age pensions and worker’s compensation for injury etc. -- was a landowning traditionalist (Junker) who was otherwise a fierce opponent of the socialists of his day. And the great 19th century British conservative Prime Minister who gave Britain’s Conservative Party its name (Disraeli) was also noted for bringing in measures to improve the lot of the industrial worker.

Britain’s Tony Blair, however, seems to be the present-day politician who understands all this best. He is a Leftist leading a very Leftist party so understands that to get his Leftist policies widely accepted he has to talk conservative -- which he regularly does. And of course he puts some conservative policies into effect too -- such as his support for the Iraq war. He is probably such an effective centrist because he can genuinely see merit in all the policies he promotes.

But one thing that NOBODY seems to be able to do anything about is the constant growth of government spending -- as economic historian Randall Holcombe points out.

What we can therefore be glad of in the English-speaking countries of the modern world is WHERE the centre lies -- and that centre does include substantial respect for individual liberties and individual enterprise. Thus NO party can go too far at chipping away our liberties without risking loss of power. The English-speaking countries are conservative countries so regardless of who is in power, the individual will still have to be treated with substantial respect. But even in such countries the location of the centre is not totally fixed. Two great 20th century conservatives -- Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan -- moved it substantially to the Right and moving it further in that direction is our big hope for the future and the reason we have to keep the argument going. If we convince the people, the politicians will follow -- no matter what political party they belong to. That’s democracy.


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