Tweedledum and tweedledee -- and both wrong?
The article from Britian below was written just before the final French elections. My libertarian inclinations make me sympathetic to it but I think I should add that even small differences can be important.
To maximize their vote all successful politicians have to be fairly centrist. It is only very rare personalities like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who can shift the whole political spectrum rightwards
Left and Right politicians like Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, sing from same hymn sheet. But political 'debate' ignores the fact that the market economy can't afford enormous social security programmes.
To listen to the excitable coverage, you might think that we were in the midst of a jolly stimulating election season in three separate countries. France, the US and London (a country within a country) would all seem to have been pitched into good old-fashioned struggles between Left and Right. One might be inclined to conclude that, after a generation of middle-ground consensus, there has been a revival of substantive debate about ideology on this side of the Atlantic, and even a startling move towards something of the kind in America - where true ideological differences between parties are almost unknown.
In London and in France, the contests were apparently between socialist adherents of the Old Faith (or historical throwbacks, if you prefer) and proponents of the market theory of wealth creation who were undaunted by the recent troubles of the capitalist system. Ken Livingstone and Fran‡ois Hollande represented the politics that time had once forgotten: unashamedly committed to the power of the state and to belief in the virtue of public spending. In the opposing corners, Boris Johnson positioned himself clearly and explicitly to the Right of his own party leadership, and Nicolas Sarkozy defended both free markets and foreign interventionism.
Meanwhile in America, a seemingly fundamental debate is taking place between the most Left-wing president in living memory and a Tea Party-dominated Republican Party that has moved significantly to the Right. So we are back to profound arguments about basic political philosophy, right? We now have serious differences of principle between parties (or at least between prominent candidates). Is there, at last, something more intellectually satisfying to fight over than the fiddly details of how little regulation, or how much taxation, is needed to hit just the right balance?
No, there isn't. This whole confrontation is overblown and illusory. All of the voices and personalities who come remotely close to power in mainstream political life in all these countries actually co-exist within the same narrow centrist spectrum. There is no Left of the old school - threatening to seize the means of production and the levers of the economy in the name of the proletariat. Not even Mr Livingstone advocates renationalising Britain's industries or the wholesale confiscation and redistribution of private property. And Mr Johnson, while he is certainly a more forthright spokesman for business interests and lower taxes than David Cameron, would not deny the need to regulate the banks or protect the disadvantaged.
The difference between the Centre Right and the Centre Left (for they are all that remains of the two sides of that old titanic struggle) is now almost entirely rhetorical. The CR wants a free-market economy with an entitlements programme attached to guard against social unrest. The CL wants an entitlement society with free-market activity attached to provide the necessary funds. The argument about the mix is very much confined to the margins - and about how you describe it. The actual differences being so slight (and there being so much flexibility needed to cope with fluctuating reality) that it is necessary to lard the descriptions with emotive, absolutist language to generate some faux passion.
So in the course of their bare-knuckle "debate" last week, Mr Hollande said to Mr Sarkozy, "I protect the children of the Republic, you protect the most privileged", thereby encapsulating the sentimental moral blackmail of modern CL-ism. And Mr Sarkozy retorted, "You want fewer rich people. I want fewer poor people," which pretty much sums up the view of CR-ism that only free markets can produce prosperity for the mass of the population.
In short, the CL more or less accepts that real wealth can only be produced by free-market economics but it still behaves as if it hates wealth creators. It continues to talk as if "profit" was an obscene word, deliberately confounding the idea of "profit-making" with "profiteering". Note the horrified reactions when there is any possibility of private profit being made through investing in public services such as health and education. Such services must remain free of the taint of the profit motive (which is to say entirely government-funded) even if that means they remain inefficient and in the grip of vested interests.
The CR, on the other hand, accepts the need for what EU spokesmen call "social solidarity": what amounts, in practical terms, to a more-or-less comprehensive welfare system which promises to ensure that no one can fall into poverty (as defined by government statistics) whatever life choices he may make. However much it may talk of "making work pay" and cracking down on benefit dependency, no official spokesman for the CR will actually repudiate the principle that it is the state's business to eradicate poverty.
So no, there is no ideological war here. The serious differences between these supposedly enemy camps - however much vitriol and personal abuse they may fling at one another - are minimal and mainly a question of labels and packaging.
Well, you may say, that's not so bad, is it? Everybody is in basic agreement about some very important things: free-market economics (for all its recent upheavals) is accepted as the only way to create wealth. And we all accept that we have a moral responsibility to reduce poverty. If politicians want to pretend that there is more differentiation between them than there really is in order to inject a bit of excitement into the electoral process, what's wrong with that?
Just this. In all the phoney ardour and heat, no one is paying any attention to the two facts that make nonsense of this supposed debate - which is not a debate. The first is that the assumption which all the principal parties have chosen to share is wrong. Relying on the free market to support a vast system of entitlements (whichever of the two you choose to make your first priority) is not sustainable. The market economy simply cannot afford the enormous cost of the social security programmes that are now regarded as politically untouchable in Europe and in the US - as both of their political elites are painfully discovering.
The second, and even more critical point, is that the economy has become so globalised that it is beyond the control of any national government, and therefore outside the reach of democratic accountability.
Politicians running for office may squabble and insult one another for all they are worth - but the economic future can now escape their grasp altogether.