Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Following "Dutch" versus "Going Dutch"

Over the weekend, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, in an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal ("How Republicans Can Build a Big-Tent Party"), argued that small government, low tax conservatism (which he summarized as "freedom") should be the focus of Republicans as they work to expand the party:

[T]he organizing principle and the crucial alternative to the Democrats -- must be freedom. The federal government is too big, takes too much of our money, and makes too many of our decisions. If Republicans can't agree on that, elections are the least of our problems.

In other words, the GOP should advocate the policies of President Ronald "Dutch" Reagan today. The "freedom" agenda -- the smaller government, lower taxes, and fewer regulations1 -- advocated by Reagan did (along with his spectacular political talents) win him the presidency, and a landslide reelection, but it's worth remembering that when he won the presidency in 1980, it was after decades of government overreach that built upon FDR's activist response to the Great Depression; during the Depression, Reagan himself voted for FDR.

Sen. DeMint continued:

If the American people want a European-style social democracy, the Democratic Party will give it to them. We can't win a bidding war with Democrats.

Coincidentally, the New York Times Magazine published an article on a European-style social democracy over the weekend, a report by Russel Shorto, an American ex-pat living in The Netherlands, on his experiences with the Dutch welfare state ("Going Dutch"). I'm going to address a few points from that article in another post, but first I'll make two meta-points.

The first meta-point is that Sen. DeMint's focus on freedom (with respect to economic policy) despite its merits, may be a tough sale today, given that we are in the longest post-WWII recession, unemployment is headed for double digits, and most Americans have seen the values of their homes and retirement accounts drop more steeply than they have in generations. I think a more common response to this sort of economic uncertainty is a desire for more security, not more freedom. If I were a Democratic political strategist, I'd have a field day with DeMint; the talking points almost write themselves. E.g., "We want to give you affordable health care; Sen DeMint and the Republicans want you to have the freedom to pay for it yourself." Certainly, Republicans ought to propose market-based alternatives where possible, but keeping in mind the current economic uncertainty, a better way to frame these alternatives might be to use a phrase such as "choice2 and security".

The second meta-point is that, despite the views of hardcore libertarians, capitalism can and does coexist with welfare state policies of one form or another. Social democracies such as Denmark and The Netherlands score highly on the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom (numbers 8 and 12, respectively, out of 179 countries ranked), and even Hong Kong and Singapore -- the highest rated countries on the index -- have social safety net policies (although they are based more on enforced savings than income redistribution). To his credit, Shorto makes a similar point in his New York Times Magazine article, noting that the Dutch have a long history of being innovative capitalists, and remain capitalists today.

1Today, "regulation" often connotes a law designed to promote public safety, but it's worth remembering that a number of the regulations Reagan (and Carter before him) opposed were ones designed more to limit competition and fix prices (e.g., regulations on airfares and stock commissions).

2Conservative advocates of school vouchers have already co-opted the word "choice" from liberal advocates of unrestricted abortion by calling voucher plans "school choice".

1 comment:

DaveinHackensack said...

Unless anyone is really interested in my comments on the "Going Dutch" article that I planned to share in a follow up to this post, I think I'll shelve it. Chalk it up to the eternal reciprocity of apathy, to refashion a phrase from the poet Wilfred Owen.