Two Leaning Towers
By Anthony de Jasay
The two towers of the European and the American political structures are bending every which way, depending on where you look from. It is a fair bet, though, that the twain shall never meet.
Many seasoned observers believe that while the European way of life is manifestly getting Americanised, which used to mean ideologically center-right the leaning tower of characteristic European politics is tending to incline more leftward. More European women go out to work when they find any, more primary school children are taught playfully and pick up some spelling and counting as a bonus, more men and women work a continuous day and eat a pizza or a burger in a short midday break, spend too much of their evening in front of the TV, and spend too much of their money too quickly. Politically, they are becoming viscerally more leftist even when they vote right, for when they do, they do it so as to teach a lesson to their political family for its alliance with the capitalist order, for deregulating, for allowing the post-2008 mess to happen and when in government, for inflicting on the masses the pain of fiscal austerity. Those living in the Eurozone have an added reason for feeling viscerally more “bolshie”. Their governments talked themselves into believing that the common currency is beneficial, they will not quit the euro even when it gives them terms of trade that only Germany, Austria and Finland can afford. Others, having given up power over their foreign exchange rate, are forced to undergo an internal devaluation by pressing down on wages, pensions, and debtors in general. This is as distressing a way to regain competitiveness as it can get, and its victims blame the capitalist interests for it, for who would possibly benefit from sticking to the euro if it is not the privileged class and the rent-getters? Some of the “bolshies” in fact swell the ranks of the extreme right, which does not make gauging the tilt of the tower any simpler.
Meanwhile on the American side of the water, the way of life may be getting a little more European. More and more Americans learn to love the visual arts and classical music, more and more no longer regard income as the sole measure of personal success in life, and more and more trust diplomas more than experience and skill learnt on the job. More Americans become like Europeans in their shyness of risk and insistence on all kinds of security. Rather European, too, is the cementing of a distinct American upper class based not so much on money, but on common roots in the Yale or Harvard Law School or their equivalents (if there are really any) going back two or three generations, and marrying inside the class. Politically, the Obama presidency leans as far left as it dares and more than Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter, though much of its leftward ambition has so far been thwarted by a gridlocked Congress. The easy second-term election victory of Mr. Obama after a first term that was hardly abundant in achievement, is testimony that at that time if not necessarily since, there was a clear left-leaning electoral majority in the country.
None of this, however, is conclusive evidence of political convergence, of the two towers leaning towards each other. Some observers see a Europe bending to the left, others (including the present author), find that it bends to the right. In trying to cope with the post-2008 economic awfulness, most European electorates have opted for moves to the center-right. Where they did, the direct threat of national bankruptcy was averted and where the most radical of the rightward move occured, in England, new “green shoots” are showing some vigour. Where the electorate turned to the left, as in France in 2012, the attempt is costing the political left all is credibility even among its traditional supporters. If there is any clear interim diagnosis about the way the tower is leaning, it is that most people do not want to know it. There is a contemptuous turning away from the futile doings of the politicians. If this mood favours any direction at all, it favours a sober conservatism that is more easily found on the right than on the left.
The long-run chances of a Euramerica, a political and social convergence of the two sides of the great pond, depend, as the word indicates, on long-run factors and not on short-run symptoms which recessions and elections signal.
Arguably, the whole civilised world has already converged on some form of democracy, at least in the minimal sense that paying lip service to it and going through its motions has become a mark of good public manners. Modern democracy, as distinct from the ancient Athenian or the medieval Venetian kind, is a rule based system of collective decision-making with anonymous voting for alternatives, with a plurality or majority prevailing and with wide impersonal suffrage tending to be universal. There is no evidently valid ethical reason for anonymous votes and every vote weighing the same as every other. Quite to the contrary, there is a plethora of ethical reasons for according different weights to different voters or types of voters. A mother of underage children or the employer who meets the payroll of many employees has greater stakes in collective decisions than the average voter and it seems anomalous, too, for a voting rule not to recognise this. Admittedly, agreement on who should have how many votes would take difficult bargaining to reach, and one man, one vote is the easy escape from the difficulty. It is not much to be proud of, yet it is treated as a major moral achievement, because it conforms to the putative principle of equality, question-begging as the latter may be. Each of the three nations England, France and the United States believe that it has invented modern democracy. The claim of each has some validity, and it is clear that each practices democracy somewhat differently and looks likely to preserve its separate practice for as long as we dare to look ahead. One difference, in particular, may be decisive for the way our two leaning towers bend away from or towards each other.
In the European practice, parties matter more than in the American. Parties have great power over who gets the chance to run for a seat in the legislature and what support he will get in his campaign for votes. When the election is for a list, the party practically appoints the legislator by giving him or her a good place on the list. Parties wear a certain ideological colouring, recognised as more Left or more Right than their rivals, and the individual legislator has little freedom to stray from the party line. Individual legislators have little influence on legislative programmes and must subject themselves to the party leadership in order to preserve their chances to run for re-election. Parties as a whole are under the basic automatism of majority rule, namely that all other things being equal, there is a majority vote of the electorate in favour of some redistribution from richer to poorer of income, public goods or intangibles. Parties must compete for the majority vote by offering different redistributive programmes. They must in some fashion lean Left. The remaining questions concern by how much they lean today compared to yesterday or tomorrow as they react to the tide of events.
In the United States, parties do a few of the things European parties do, but they have much less influence on the chances of someone getting himself elected to Congress. A seat is of great value, probably much greater than a seat in a European legislative assembly. Competition for a seat is in part by the candidates’ efforts of persuasion, but also and to an ever greater extent on campaign expenditure. Unlike presidential campaign, the funds for local House and even Senate campaigns must mostly be found locally. Unsurprisingly, well-to-do donors tend to make more generous campaign contributions than needy ones. To compete with the rivals, a candidate must cultivate the goodwill of wealthy potential contributors who are unlikely to support a candidate standing for massive from-rich-to-poor redistributive policies. As the saying goes, the American lawmaker is bought by the rich, and since he is an honest man, he will stay bought. This, in crude parlance, is why American politics is never as left-wing as the European and, seen with European eyes, it is a conservative, inegalitarian bulwark of capitalism.
With capitalism protected by an albeit moderately fortified political bulwark, the rule of law, and the defense of ownership against the trespasses of government survive better in America than in Europe, where capitalism is tolerated, but hardly allowed, let alone cheered on, to perform as well as it could. American capitalism is hampered by much regulation that borders on the silly and counter-productive, but its making of money despite the regulatory straitjacket is not regarded as a signal for tightening the straitjacket. The upshot is that a perhaps unlovely feature of American democracy, namely that money buys lawmakers and laws, results in an economic order that, for all its occasional absurdities, performs year in, year out better than the European.
This is probably the strongest long-run reason for the two political systems in their respective Leaning Towers will continue to lean away from one another.
The State is also available online on this website.
For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.