Free Debate and Prosperity

This is to all of you around the world who are laughing at the shutdown of the federal government here in the United States. Especially European media have portrayed this as a farce, and with the exception of the British press there are virtually no attempts at understanding the underlying issue.

What led to the shutdown was not some political posturing, but indeed an ideological rift that runs right through U.S. Congress. This is at the end of the day a fight between conservative and liberal, not to say social-democratic, values. Over the past two elections, 2010 and 2012, the conservative flank of the Republican party grew stronger and has solidified its presence in both chambers of Congress. By contrast, Obama-leaning radicals have made inroads in the Democrat party. This has widened the ideological span in Congress, making our legislature one of the most pluralistic in the industrialized world.

And right here is where most foreign commentators are led astray by their own prejudices. There is a prevailing idea in Europe, again with the exception of Britain and to some degree Denmark, that politics is about bringing everyone to the consensus table.  The construction of the EU has reinforced the institutional structures that  favor consensus over a free, vigorous debate. Where American politicians can end a debate on a note of disagreement, Europeans often get nervous over the lack of consensus and agreement.

I am not going to speculate as to where Europe got its consensus extremism from, though the parliamentary system itself may have been biased in favor of compromise and consensus rather than principled disagreement. But what really matters is that a political system that favors compromise and consensus gradually erodes, and eventually eliminates, principled debate. As part of the convergence toward a compromise the European parliamentary system implicitly establishes a value norm that then becomes the attractor point for all future political discourse.

The European welfare state is a good example. Consuming 45-55 percent of GDP, depending on where you go in the EU, the welfare state has transferred crucial decisions on people’s lives from individuals and families to government. Through the welfare state, Europeans have handed over their health care, their retirement planning, their children’s daycare and education, their decisions when to be home sick or when to be home with infants, and much more, to government. It is almost easier to list the parts of their lives that Europeans have not entrusted government with.

This heavy socialization of everyday life is universally accepted in most of Europe. So called conservatives such as former French president Sarkozy or just-re-elected German chancellor Merkel are just as good stewards of the welfare state as their socialist competitors. in Sweden, a welfare-state Mecca for American liberals and European social-democrats, the ideological rifts over the welfare state that still existed in the 1980s are now long gone. The Moderate Party, once known as a solid conservative force in Swedish politics, has morphed into a clever copy of the Social Democrats, being at least as good stewards of the welfare state as those who once created it.

Europe’s gravitation toward a consensus around the welfare state has effectively eradicated ideological differences, both in the public discourse and in the parliamentary system. This is visible all through European society, from German cities which, under “conservative” Angela Merkel’s administration, are spending half their money on redistributive entitlement systems, to the fierce efforts by the Eurocrats in the European Union to preserve the welfare state by means of austerity.

Questioning the big-government project is akin to political suicide in the European political culture. By contrast, questioning big government in America is very much part of the established political discourse. This is exemplified by several ideologically driven fights in U.S. Congress in recent years, especially since Obama was elected. The Obamacare issue is perhaps the most fervent of them, with Tea Party-supported conservatives in the Republican Party clashing with exceptionally statist Obama Democrats.

The government funding issue is another one where a vigorous ideological difference comes to full display. Americans may sigh and shake their heads over the battles being fought in Congress, but they themselves are not alien to expressing their political viewpoints and agreeing to disagree with friends, coworkers and even the occasional stranger encountered on an airplane or at Arby’s over lunch.

I am the first to recognize that the ideological rifts in American society have grown, and not always for the better, during the Obama administration. But those rifts have always been there, and it is a sign of health for American democracy that those rifts remain. Sometimes they get in the way of the regular operations of government, such as right now, but if the issue is principled enough the fight is worth it. Opinion polls also show that Americans are – yes – opinionated about the shutdown: while they tend to disagree with the shutdown itself they tend to agree with the Republicans on trying to stop (or at least delay) Obamacare.

In other words, the ideological spectrum in American politics remains wide and vibrant. That is healthy for the future of American society and democracy. The contrast to Europe is formidable, and not to the favor of the Europeans. In fact, there is a growing fear in Europe over disagreements even on minor issues such as immigration, a fear that manifests itself in the redefinition of stigmatizing political labels like “Racism” or “Fascism”. The end result is a further narrowing-down of the political spectrum until it becomes entirely two-dimensional: either you agree completely and you are accepted, or you express even minor disagreements with the main political discourse, and you immediately become an outcast.

When the art of disagreement is sacrificed at the altar of political consensus, the long-term consequences are unfathomable. One of the first major sacrifices is economic freedom and prosperity. When the political culture and the public discourse are alien to open and vigorous debate, which prevents people from questioning the purpose behind policies that are destroying large parts of the European economic landscape.

Here in America, we still operate on the premise that debate and disagreement lead to the best argument winning – and that the best argument comes with the best policy solutions. That is why we still have a good chance to avoid following Europe down the path to industrial poverty.

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