The most striking thing about the in the French presidential elections is that the socialist won as the candidate of economic growth and independence.
Not so very long ago, this would have seemed absurd.
The left in Europe—and to a lesser extent, in the United States—was ambivalent about economic growth. Its agenda subordinated economic growth to a host of other issues, especially the issues of equality and environmentalism. National independence wasn’t on the agenda at all, except when it came to third-world countries.
Growth was owned by the right. It was widely thought of as the product of market processes—and therefore the issue favored free-market parties. The great debate was the extent to which a pro-growth agenda needed to be moderated by other pursuits.
Resistance to growing international constraints on national governments also tended to be the province of the right. The left wanted a stronger United Nations, a stronger EU Commission, pervasive international institutions throwing red tape around every conceivable social, political or economic problem. The right wielded the scissors, vowing to cut through the tape, cleave a path for national sovereignty.
Somewhere in the course of the Great Recession, all that has changed.
Conservatives across Europe have abandoned the idea of pursuing growth in favor of pursuing balanced budgets and smaller deficits. Market processes aren’t heartily embraced as the production process of prosperity, but as constraints, sign posts warning “we cannot afford it” on the road to bounty. In the United States, most of the Republican objections to Obama’s health care seem built around its alleged costs.
France’s Hollande is said to be preparing to add a paragraph on growth to the European fiscal treaty while, Germany’s Merkel insists that "We in Germany, and me personally, are of the opinion that the fiscal pact is nonnegotiable.” So now the right-of-center is opposed to growth and in favor of international agreements, while the left is pushing for growth and resisting being tied down by international agreements.
We’ve stepped through the looking glass.
To many people in the United States and Europe, the idea that their national government’s priorities should be set by the bond market or credit-rating agencies is as noxious as the idea that they should be set by bureaucrats at the United Nation’s H.Q. in Turtle Bay, Manhattan. The basic philosophy of Tom Joad from Steinbeck’s "The Grapes of Wrath" still holds: we want to “throw out the cops that ain’t our people”—even if those cops are bond-market vigilantes.
“We can’t afford it” is a terrible political slogan—and it also just isn’t true.
The response—as Obama put it four years ago—of “Yes We Can” will always defeat it.
The cheers from Hollande’s supporters this Sunday were a clarion call to conservatives across the globe. As long as the right cedes the issues of growth and freedom to the left, you should expect to lose. Because you will deserve to lose.
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