The French presidential election is almost upon us. The first round will take place in mid-April and the second in early May. Usually, such campaigns unfold in a way that is more or less predictable. Not this year.
British Prime Minister David announces his resignation at Downing Street. (Photo by Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Britain Makes History
By Richard Samuelson
So yet another effort to put all of Europe under one government seems to be failing. From Caesar to Charlemagne to Charles V to Louis XIV to Napoleon and beyond the vision of unity has been a recurring theme in European politics. The latest effort, a union forged in the wake of two destructive and nearly universal wars, is different in some ways—although not democratic, there have been democratic elements in the EU. Moreover, and most importantly, expansion has been peaceful, featuring conquest by referendum.
All that notwithstanding, one can, quite accurately see the Brexit as the latest in a long series of rejections of a universal European empire, with Eurocrats in the place of previous would-be emperors. As in previous centuries, Cambridge and Oxford dons are more comfortable conferencing with their peers at the Sorbonne than with their fellow subjects, and once again the would-be coutiers they train look to the Continent for moral guidance. And, as before, many of Her Majesty’s common subjects resent it.
American exceptionalism may be disappearing. American exceptionalism posits that the United States is fundamentally different from other nations, particularly those in Europe. The United States was founded on a commitment to principles whereas other nations were founded on ties of blood. Moreover, our principles were those of the Enlightenment, embracing individual liberty and the rule of law.
One of the results, as Seymour Martin Lipset noted, was that the United States has never had a serious socialist party. But in this election cycle a serious socialist has come close to winning the Democratic nomination. Indeed, Sanders would be winning except for the loyalty Clinton enjoys among African American voters. But as the votes of the congressional Black Caucus show, African American voters are the most left-wing bloc economically. Next time they would be likely vote for the socialist candidate who imitates Sanders.
We have also never had a major nationalist party, like the National Front in France. Such parties run not only on protectionism and xenophobia but on preserving an unreformed entitlement state. But Trump’s platform is a somewhat paler version of such virulent European parties.
The combination of Trump’s and Sanders’ rise shows that the candle of liberty by which American exceptionalism glows may be flickering out.
In both parties’ primaries a real populist is running, the kind of person many of the Framers would have called a demagogue. On the Republican side, the billionaire says we can deport all illegal immigrants and he will persuade Mexico to give the money to build a fence. Although he proclaims himself a conservative, his most substantial complaint about big government appears to be that he is not running it.
On the Democratic side, a self-proclaimed socialist argues that the problem with government is that it is not even bigger. He wants to sharply raise taxes and provide more government jobs. He also wants to criminalize all kinds of voluntary acts, from choosing to work at mutually agreeable wages to trading goods and services with foreigners, including those for whom that trade may mean the difference between subsistence and penury. This tribune of equality would ground down the truly destitute of the world. And, sadly, both these candidates are riding pretty high in the polls.
But these candidacies actually show the relative health of the United States compared to the most comparable democracies—those in Europe. Our populists of right and left are less bad then their populists, less likely to win power, and even in power less likely to do permanent damage.
The negotiations between the EU, Greece, and its creditors drag on and Greece has recently postponed a repayment of debt to the IMF. It now seems clear that the best result for liberty would be for Greece to leave the Eurozone. The new Greek government wants to build a big and powerful state and violate the economic liberties of citizens. Its creditors should not abet the strangulation of economic freedom by extending their loans. Accommodating the Greek government will also help new leftist parties in other nations win votes for a program of economic illiberalism financed by foreigners.
The Syriza party argues for ending austerity by which it means it wants to aggrandize the state and put chains on the private sector. Let’s consider some of the “anti-austerity” measures on its agenda. First, they want to resist reform of labor laws, making it harder for employers to fire workers. This proposal violates the rights of employers and employees to make their own decisions about tenure. It also is blow against long term growth as it will make it harder for the market to match workers with the jobs they can do best.