Saturday, May 14, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Who’s Acting Like a European Ideologue?

The ideological subtext of the 2012 election is already taking shape.  Democrats are going to be arguing that Republican extremists are trying to renegotiate the terms of the American social contract in favor of the rich.  Republicans are going to argue that the Democratic version of the American social contract is a perversion of our nation's founding principles, but fiscally unsustainable in any case.  There aren't many voices on either side pointing toward ideological common ground.  That has me thinking about the issues raised in this (slightly edited) 12/3/10 post written when Democrats and Republicans were arguing over whether to extend the Bush tax cuts:

David Brooks is an interesting guy, not only because he has interesting things to say, but because he’s an interesting ideological specimen. He’s a journalistic graduate of conservative publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard. But, while he still retains the intellectual respect of his (erstwhile?) conservative comrades, he has turned himself into liberals’ favorite center-right pundit. In that capacity, he’s uniquely positioned to explain Obama’s liberalism to conservatives, and conservatism to liberals. So we should listen to what he has to say.

Brooks is a diligent student of the consensus historians (like Louis Hartz) who argued that, compared to the diversity of respectable opinion in Europe, the ideological differences between American liberals and conservatives are superficial. So he bristles at the Republican notion that Obama Democrats are the ideological cousins of the European social democrats determined to change the terms of the American social contract.

Here, for example, is how Brooks describes a debate he recently had with Paul Ryan, a rising star of movement conservatism (my emphasis):
“Ryan and I differed over President Obama and the prospects for compromise in the near term. Ryan believes that the country faces a clearly demarcated choice. The Democratic Party, he argues, believes in creating a European-style cradle-to-grave social welfare state, while the Republicans believe in a free-market opportunity society. There is no overlap between the two visions and very little reason to think they can be reconciled.

“I argued that Obama and his aides are liberal or center-left pragmatists and that nothing they have said or written suggests they want to turn the U.S. into Sweden. I continued that Ryan’s sharply polarized vision is not only journalistically inaccurate, it makes compromise and politics impossible.”
So, as far as Brooks is concerned, ideologically polarizing politicians, Republicans like Ryan and Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, are acting like disagreeable European ideologues. Their distaste for bipartisanship is a symptom of a failure on their part to understand where they and their political opponents fit into distinctly American political traditions.   More self-consciously American politicians would understand that the American left and the American right have too much in common for there not to be a mutually advantageous political sweet spot.

It’s not hard to imagine Ryan’s reply. He'd probably say that the ideological differences between European Tories and Christian Democrats on the one hand, and Social Democrats and Socialists on the other, are now superficial because, after World War II, the Tories and the Christian Democrats either lost, or never wanted to fight, the ideological battle that Republicans and Democrats are now waging. Given the zero-sum stakes as the Ryans and Pelosis of this world see them, it’s entirely appropriate for Democrats and Republicans to be playing ideological hardball, even if it bruises the tender sensibilities of Washington pundits. 

The politics of the next two years will tell us a lot about who’s right. If it's Brooks, there must be a politically viable bipartisan way out of the present political impasse. So it’s fair to ask him what it is. His answer is win-win comprehensive tax reform. Here’s his advice to Obama:
“Sometime over the next couple of weeks, President Obama issues a statement that reads: ‘Over the past several months, Republicans and Democrats have been fighting over what to do with the Bush tax cuts. I have my own views, but it’s not worth having a big fight over a tax code we all hate. Therefore, I’m suspending this debate. We will extend the Bush rates for everybody for one year, along with unemployment benefits. But during that year we will enact a comprehensive tax reform plan.

“‘The plan we will work on this year will look a bit like the 1986 reform plan. We will clean out the loopholes. We will take on the special interests. We will lower rates and make the tax code fair.’”
 Well maybe. The main terms of Brooks's political bargain are clear enough: conservatives get lower tax rates (and more of what they see as “liberty”) in exchange for giving liberals a simpler but more progressive tax code (and more of what they see as “justice”). That sounds like a pretty sweet deal for both sides until you start considering what Brooks has left off the term sheet.

Every tax loophole that he would close represents a collective decision to the effect that some conduct is socially preferable to other conduct and therefore worthy of a public subsidy. That makes the tax code a medium of social engineering. That's true whether you're talking about conservative social engineering (think of tax deferred health savings accounts or a lower rate for capital gains than for ordinary income) or liberal social engineering (think of the earned-income and college-tuition tax credits). If Republicans and Democrats have agreed on anything over the last twenty years, it has been in making the tax code the principal medium of social engineering.  The across-the-board obliteration of tax deductions and credits that Brooks is contemplating would represent a drastic diminution of public influence over private behavior, much of which could not be counteracted by social policy operating outside the tax code.   Moreover, it would nullify sixty years worth of precisely the sort of bipartisan compromise that Brooks thinks is characteristic of, and vital to, the American political system.

Do you really think that Republicans and Democrats who can't agree on tax rates are going to be able to agree about which tax credits and deductions are superfluous?

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