Thursday, May 27, 2010

How Serious is the Sovereign Debt Crisis?

I’ve rattled on before about the importance of  “ideological victories.” These are cases where a once-controversial policy position of people on one side of an ideological divide becomes conventional wisdom among people on the other side. When that happens, it’s generally not because people on the losing side have renounced any of their own core values in favor of the core values of people on the winning side. The losers take on the winner’s position because the losers have come to the realization that their old position was self-defeating relative to their own values. The losers generally find a way of changing the subject so as to avoid an abject concession of defeat.  But we know they’ve been defeated when neither they nor the winners bother any longer to argue the point.

Welfare reform in the 1990s is one relatively straightforward example. In their own eyes, the wisdom of conservatives’ reflexive resistance to the idea of taxing productive people to subsidize unproductive people was confirmed when evidence mounted that the subsidies rewarded socially corrosive behavior and undermined socially vital institutions like the nuclear family. But conservatives didn’t win the argument over welfare until they persuaded a substantial number of liberals, including the New Democratic cohort around Bill Clinton, that the unreformed welfare system was undermining the liberal objective of promoting the well-being and social independence of welfare recipients.  Liberals are still receptive to the idea of making benefits to families with dependent children more generous, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who’d favor restoring a welfare regime that severs eligibility for public assistance from the obligation to find a job.

That’s a clear sign that conservatives scored an ideological victory. That, however, was just one battle in the multi-generational war over the scope and administration of the welfare state. Clinton would soon launch an effective counterattack by showing that he could promote equality while presiding over the vibrant economy of the late 1990s. And Obama would take office with a mandate to do something about health care, even if it turns out that ObamaCare wasn't exactly that thing.

A short year ago, liberals savoring Obama’s inauguration thought they were on their way to a succession of victories of their own. Now, the sovereign debt crisis has conservatives strutting about as if victory in the war over the welfare state is within their grasp.  Mark Steyn, for example, seems confident that arguing about its fiscal sustainability is a waste of breath (my emphasis):

“Back in 2008, when I was fulminating against multiculturalism on a more or less weekly basis, a reader wrote to advise me to lighten up, on the grounds that “we’re rich enough to afford to be stupid.”

"Two years later, we’re a lot less rich. In fact, many Western nations are, in any objective sense, insolvent. Hence last week’s column, on the EU’s decision to toss a trillion dollars into the great sucking maw of Greece’s public-sector kleptocracy. It no longer matters whether you’re intellectually in favour of European-style social democracy: simply as a practical matter, it’s unaffordable.”
We shouldn’t underestimate Steyn’s and other conservatives’ capacity for wishful thinking. But if liberals don’t recognize that the sovereign debt crisis puts them in extreme ideological peril, they’re succumbing to wishful thinking of their own.

No comments: