Left vs. right across the Atlantic

I lived for about four years in the U.S. and it took me a while to understand their left-right dimension. In Mexico it would take an exceptionally apt candidate to make me vote for the lefty PRD (or similar)–oddly enough, if I was an US citizen I can see myself voting for their slightly lefty Democratic party. How come? You have to understand where the status quo and the policies preferred by the median-voter stand in each country. Comparing Europe vs. U.S. is very illustrative also:

The Other American Exceptionalism
By Gerard Alexander

Not so long ago, American conservatives seemed to be converting the world to their ideas. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, country after country abandoned socialism for free markets, embracing such Reaganite themes as incentives, individualism, and responsibility. It looked as though the sun would never set on the friends of American conservatism. Yet today, American conservatives have never felt so alone.

This is not a matter of how many people around the world like American conservatives, but of how many are like them. To be sure, many political movements don’t have counterparts in other countries. But Europe and America are politically kin, and when in the 1980s Ronald Reagan took his stands for markets and against the Soviets he found ready and stalwart allies in Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and other indigenous conservatives. Yet all we hear of these days is the “exceptionalism of modern American conservatism.” What happened to Europe?

Finding an answer begins with a comparison of contemporary American and European conservatives, especially concerning their basic assumptions—or operating principles—about economics, foreign policy, crime, and morality.

Market vs. State

American conservatives believe that a healthy modern economy is so complex and innovative that most economic decisions have to take place in the private sector, where scattered information is located, and risk may be rewarded or punished. Government is best at enforcing rules of the game and engaging in limited redistribution. When it does much more than that, it creates inefficient regulations and bureaucracies prone to expanding rather than learning.

This basic assumption runs deep in American life, not merely because we’ve spent too much time in post office lines—everyone on earth has done that—but because we’re in a position to compare the post office to responsive, dynamic private businesses of all kinds. Many Europeans think similarly, especially business leaders, free-market activists, policy wonks, center-right politicians (including, apparently, the German Christian Democrats’ Angela Merkel), and the occasional center-left leader such as Tony Blair or Gerhard Schroeder.

But most Western Europeans fear that markets will fail to meet their needs and satisfy their interests. They maintain a faute de mieux faith that government is the indispensable actor in economic life. Even when compelled by economic crisis to trim taxes, privatize, and curb spending—that is, even while recognizing implicitly that these measures attract investment and encourage growth—European leaders rarely offer principled criticism of government intervention, much less positive rhetoric about the marketplace. (Jacques Chirac’s center-right cabinet is now privatizing state entities, not because private ownership is more efficient but primarily to cut the deficit and pay down the debt.) The European Union’s proclaimed drive to become internationally competitive is top-down and government-centered. Not surprisingly, “Thatcherite” and “neo-liberal” continue to be labels insultingly applied and hotly denied. All this is true even for several right-wing “populist” parties, such as France’s National Front, which calls occasionally for tax limitation but more often emphasizes protectionism and a welfare state generous to native-born Frenchmen.

These views have not been dislodged, even by serious economic problems. And Europe’s economic problems are serious. The unemployment rate is stuck at around 10% in Germany and France, and if anything this underestimates the true figure–even more unemployment is concealed through extensive job-training and early-retirement schemes. The fact that many continental European economies have such mechanisms for sidelining less-skilled workers makes it all the more striking that labor productivity still generally grows faster in the United States. For decades, France and Germany had narrowed the gap in labor productivity with the U.S., but in the past 15 years their progress slowed and then reversed.

The result is that average U.S. per capita income is now about 55% higher than the average of the European Union’s core 15 countries (it expanded to 25 in 2004). In fact, the biggest E.U. countries have per capita incomes comparable to America’s poorest states.

If you like this much, you should read the whole thing.