Convening the Democracy Symposium


Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Ordinary Times. Relapsed Lawyer, admitted to practice law (under his real name) in California and Oregon. On Twitter, to his frequent regret, at @burtlikko. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

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95 Responses

  1. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    And the deficit shot up because taxes got cut without spending being cut with it.

    IIRC, the Reagan-era deficits were driven more by spending hikes than by tax cuts. Spending under Reagan exceeded 23% of GDP, a level never before seen in peacetime and not reached again until Obama. The marginal rate cuts, on the other hand, were largely offset by a broadening of the base.Report

  2. Avatar Fnord says:

    “[noting] [you do mean noting, righting?] that the United States existed without any substantial federal or state welfare programs for the first hundred years of its existence”
    But was it without the “plum appointments, contracts to let and sell public lands and provide public services, concessions for toll roads and tax collections” that, as you say, were the giveaways expected in Tyter’s day?

    “It’s not that Obamacare will make us less free (or more free, or healthier), it’s that it will make more voters amenable to choosing Democrats, because Democrats steered public money to solve their personal problems.”
    Is it that, or is it simply that parties end up defining each other in opposition to each other, and so any proposal from the opposite party is opposed?Report

  3. Like much libertarianish commentary, this post suffers from an abstract, hypothetical perspective, and a failure to engage with how things work in the real world. In the US, it’s simply not the cases that the rabble clamor for goodies and get what they want: “Via Kevin Drum, a Martin Gilens paper (PDF) on the most important fact about inequality and American politics—when rich people and average folks disagree, rich people always get their way”.

    This bit from the post, on the other hand, isn’t merely abstract, it’s completely false: The reason there is such near-perfect partisan polarity on health care reform is that at some level, everyone thinks that more welfare means more loyalty from the voters to the party that provided it. It’s not that Obamacare will make us less free (or more free, or healthier), it’s that it will make more voters amenable to choosing Democrats, because Democrats steered public money to solve their personal problems.

    In real life, of course, other wealthy countries spend less than half what we spend per capita on health care, and we don’t get any better results. From the final link at that link:

    [The ACA] also begins experimenting with bundled payments, in which Medicare pays one lump-sum for all care related to the successful treatment of a condition rather than paying for every piece of care separately. To help these reforms succeed, and to help all doctors make more cost-effective treatment decisions, the law accelerates research on which drugs and treatments are most effective, and creates and funds the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute to disseminate the data. If those initiatives work, they head over to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which can implement cost-controlling reforms across Medicare without congressional approval — an effort to make continuous reform the default for Medicare, even if Congress is gridlocked or focused on other matters. And if they don’t work, then it’s up to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation, a funded body that will be continually testing payment and practice reforms … The law also goes after bad and wasted care … Keep in mind that the Congressional Budget Office made the very conservative decision not to assign savings to these measures, on the assumption that since they had never been tried before, there was no way of measuring how well they would work, so it gave them no financial savings value. And the Affordable Care Act also included a limit on the tax deduction for expensive health insurance, a powerful cost-saving tool that the CBO did score.

    Because the bulk of our long-term debt problem in the US is health care costs, and because the experience of every other wealthy nation shows that we have savings to achieve, all fiscal conservatives voted for the Affordable Care Act.

    This post is akin to the mid-19th century Orestes Brownson essay, “Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty”. “Infidelity, Protestantism, heathenism may institute a democracy, but only Catholicity can sustain it”, he wrote. He constructed a well-reasoned and entirely consistent line of rationale in defense of that view. A glance at real life, though, shows that his hypotheses, however plausible, are not valid.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      Thanks for the critique, reflection. You write “In real life, of course, other wealthy countries spend less than half what we spend per capita on health care, and we don’t get any better results.” But this is in response to my point that implementing Obamacare is foreseen to lead to the Democrats reaping electoral rewards from its beneficiaries. The rest of your point seems to be aimed at whether various forms of public health care or health care payment assistance will actually make health care better.

      My point is that whether it actually works or not, Obamacare will be perceived as a benefit, and voters will find they like having the benefit, and behave accordingly at the polls by picking more Democrats than Republicans. It’s the partisan reprecussions that change the feedback loop of the political cycle, and the fiscal results of that change in feedback, which I’m interested in here.

      If you’re trying to argue that the label “fiscal conservative” is not actually a good fit for Republicans who have consistently voted against PPACA and have consistently voted to repeal it (perhaps not 32 times as the Democrats claim) since it was implemented and who are putting together a national campaign platform consisting largely of a promise to repeal it, then good on you. They call themselves that but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re right. That’s the discussion I think we should be having now about this law: does it make economic sense?Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        Medicare is the obvious counterargument here. Swing voters probably can’t even correctly identify Democrats as the party that created that particular benefit, and Medicare beneficiaries are one of the most conservative demographic groups in the country, steadfastly opposing the creation of new benefits. Isn’t it just as possible that the recipients of government benefits might oppose the creation of new benefits, on the theory that an expansion of the commitments of the Federal Government makes the perpetuation of their own benefits less likely?Report

      • Thanks for your reply. You write, “this is in response to my point that implementing Obamacare is foreseen to lead to the Democrats reaping electoral rewards from its beneficiaries.”

        Is it fair to say that your critique echoes Mann & Ornstein? “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

        That is, for the GOP, all of politics is a glossy marketing effort in the service of a zero-sum, scorched-earth battle for political power, with policy details quite beside the point.

        That’s a fair enough point, but it’s a point about the contingent & ephemeral character of today’s US politics, not something about the eternal nature of democracy.Report

  4. Avatar Roger says:

    I suspect the dynamic within A solitary liberal democracy would be to degrade exactly as you lay out. The saving grace is that the dynamic changes where there is a population of competing and cooperating liberal democracies. To quote Richerson and Henrich:

    “One practical avenue recommended by this approach is not to attempt to design a master solution, but to try within a population different things in different interacting subpopulations—that is, building multiple Darwin machines that harness selective retention of useful institution practices,ideas, values and habits. As different subpopulation succeed or fail, less successful group will imitate the more successful group, often creating new novelty by mixing and matching institutional forms of the two groups. Over time, as long as the group remains competitive and well?information of each other’s success, competition plus imitation should ratchet up the quality of institutional forms for collective action. In market economies we engineer competition between firms by antitrust policies in order to exploit this principle. Similarly, federal political systems deliberately encourage lower level units to formulate their own policies in part to take advantage of it.”

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      A worthy point, Mr. Roger. Prof. Tytle was writing as much of the Great Britain of his late eighteenth century as he was of democracy in general — that Great Britain was consolidating, not devolving, control of law and policy in the Parliament in London; contrary to the U.S. perception of the King as tyrant, even the power of the King was eroding to Parliament in that phase of history. I don’t think Tytle, looking across the ocean (not yet shrunk to pond size in his day) really appreciated how federalized the democracy emerging out of the American Revolution would become and what that meant for the dynamics of government.Report

  5. Avatar Stillwater says:

    Tytler argued that the levers of democracy would inevitably be corrupted by those holding money and power, who would manipulate laws, timing of elections, information fed to voters, and selection of candidates to favor themselves.

    As for as institutional analyses go, I don’t think these types go very far. A more fully developed and generally applicable analysis along these line would suggest, it seems to me that, the psychological properties of being like us entail that any system of governance will result in levers of political power becoming corrupted by private individuals. Even Roger’s proposal decentralized, cooperative model. So Democracy isn’t unique except in the mechanisms by which private power gains control policy levers. (I also agree with you that there is no logical entailment about the connection.)

    On the other hand, Tytler’s argument could be rephrased a bit to make it more amenable to democracy: if politicians are empowered with the purse strings of society, there will be a an expansion of rights and opportunities for oppressed people within society, more egalitarianism and less social injustice, because politicians are incentivized to “level the playing field.” Assuming a society with demonstrable injustice, this conclusion seems to be just as “necessary” as the one Tytler arrives at.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:


      How are politicians incentivized to level the playing field?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        By proposing leveling policies to attract votes.Report

        • Avatar Roger says:

          This runs into Public Choice problems. Using the level playing field metaphor, those on the high ground will do everything in their power to negate this trend and to increase the extent of their advantage. To the extent that benefits of privilege are concentrated to a coordinated group; and that costs are diffuse, small per person, opaque or unorganized, then the system will tend to become more uneven not less. Indeed, those on the high ground will use their ill gotten gains to fund further raising their ground.

          The dynamic of your system leads to the opposite of where you think it does. It actually leads to self amplifying privilege seeking subgroups. It leads to those united to constantly exploit “other people’s money.”. In the end they exploit themselves, by shifting liabilities into the opaque ledgers.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Using the level playing field metaphor, those on the high ground will do everything in their power to negate this trend and to increase the extent of their advantage.

            Sure, they will “do everything in their power” to prevent those types of results from occurring. But they fail, again and again. So the model you’re proposing is refuted by the evidence.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              I never imagined this response.

              Are you suggesting that the following are just figments of my imagination?

              Agricultural subsidies
              Ethanol requirements
              Trade restrictions
              Rent controls
              Entrance barriers to industry and professions
              Rules against street sales and performances
              Regulatory barriers
              Union featherbedding
              Leveraging our future via debt
              Raiding of social security
              Pension underfunding
              Sports arena subsidies
              Financial bailouts of 2008
              Defense spending
              I could go on for hours and trillions

              I am aware that special interest groups pay intellectuals great sums to market this stuff as necessary to help the little guy, but I assumed you would see through this “shilling.”Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                It’s worth noting that almost of these are wildly popular with the masses. Populism is the handmaiden of cronyism.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                You’re citing evidence here, yes? Evidence of what, tho? a) That representative democracy doesn’t exclude the possibility of exploitation by private power? b) That RD logically entails the possibility of exploitation by private power? c) That RD logically entails that no policy ever could be enacted that doesn’t serve the interests of private power?

                My view is that a list of empirical evidence can only justify b), but b) is entirely uninteresting. For your implicit claim to have any merit, to be taken seriously as an analysis of RD, it needs to support either a) or c). But what would those arguments look like? Further, do they suffer from counterexamples?

                First, let me say that a) is an unrealistic condition on any political theory. It’s simply impossible to construct a theory of political economy in which the ambitions of human beings can be entirely excluded from governmental policy. That’s an empirical claim, to be sure, but one I think even libertarians would concede. It can also be argued a priori, tho: if any institutional entity is accorded the power to determine policy, individuals holding power within that institution will act so as to maximize their own private power. So a), it seems to me, is too high a standard for any political theory to achieve.

                c), on the other hand, can be refuted by examples. The extension of voting rights is one example. (Do I need more than one?)

                So, to bring it all around again, the mere observation that policy mechanisms are often exploited by private power isn’t an interesting one unless: 1) there is a conceptual scheme under which that exploitation is logically impossible, and b) all policy is enacted for the express purpose of promoting special-interest private power. I don’t think either of those can hold up.

                Short of that, all you’re saying is that our democracy is contingently messy and inefficient. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                My post on the topic was aimed at making it less prone to exploitation and privilege seeking. Not perfect. Just better. When the sheep can flee they won’t get fleeced.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Sure. But Roger, this is the explanation of my comment above which you found so transparently and laughably false that you listed examples refuting my suggestion. Getting back to that, my contention was that your thesis based on public choice theory collapses on evaluation, and that representative democracy has as a matter of fact led to all sorts of benefits for people who aren’t part of the privileged, private-power, policy determining set.

                Do you concede that?Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                I concede that democracy leads to good results. Yes. It also leads to privilege seeking and over regulation. I think you agree here.

                One place where we may disagree is that I extend the badness of privilege seeking to those interests represented by the left as well. You can guess my list.

                As Blaise said, I think democracy should focus on the us and try to avoid the us and them.Report

              • Avatar Roger says:

                That should read focus on the WE.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              I have to agree with Roger that the response is surprising. But then Stillwater is not the most predictable person around here; a consequence of him not being rigorously ideological.

              But I, too, think he is in error. Roger’s point about diffused costs and concentrated benefits is not just a theoretical possibility, but a frequent real-world outcome. That the benefits don’t flow just to one small definable group is perhaps what leads to misunderstanding this, but that’s not what the theory predicts would happen. Rather, it predicts that a variety of groups (“special” interests, but that’s a pejorative term, so I advocate for use of “specialized” interests, which is less pejorative and more descriptive) will each fight vigorously for their own particular concentrated benefit. What we end up with is not so much money flowing from the masses to a small elite, but money flowing from the masses to multiple specialized elites.

              As long as each spending item is a small amount to each individual, the cost of fighting against it is not worthwhile. E.g., a subsidy to me of $150 million–which I would like, thank you very much–will cost each taxpayer around $1; how much effort will you put into lobbying your congressmember to save $1? And that’s assuming you’re actually aware of the item. Now multiply that by a great many items, and suddenly it’s all costing you a whole lot of dollars, but you can’t effectively fight against all of them at once, so you still have little incentive to lobby against it. Meanwhile, it’s worth it to me to spend a hell of a lot lobbying for $150 million.

              This is one area where, as Burt notes, Madison got it wrong. In Federalist 10 he says the cure for minority dominance is majority rule. He sets that issue aside as unimportant and focuses on the danger of majority dominance. But he didn’t realize how concentrated costs and dispersed benefits could undermine majority rule and allow minority factions to get their own interest at the expense of the majority (although not necessarily to actually “rule”).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Roger’s point about diffused costs and concentrated benefits is not just a theoretical possibility, but a frequent real-world outcome.

                Granted. I just don’t see that anything analytically interesting follows from making that trivial observation. See my above response to Roger.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                You may not see anything analytically interesting in it, but thousands of academics do.Report

  6. Avatar North says:

    Great opening post Burt. I don’t particularly disagree with any specific parts of it but I do have a few thoughts to add.

    I agree with your observation that the great threat to liberal democracies is the unbalancing of national debt to the point where it overwhelms the nation’s finances. I’d like to add, though, that we have observed in the last fifty years that several of America’s parliamentary cousins; New Zealand and Canada in particular, have already confronted that particular threat and that they rose to the challenge; defeated it and are currently enjoying somewhat of a post crisis economic glow as a result. Ol’ Mother England likewise is writhing under the harsh medicine of an austerity correction (it remains to be seen if the medicine delivered inopportunely as it was in the midst of a recession cures the patient or kills the government that imposed it). So I would submit that the answer to your question based on the criteria outlined in your post is a firm yes. The great threat you’ve identified can and has been overcome by liberal democracies, or at least parliamentary ones.

    It also strikes me as worthy of note that Greece, the quintessential fiscal horror story, is more a horror story about outright fraud when combined with extra-national organizations and extra-national pretensions. The Greeks, after all, could not have run up the kinds of debts they did had their ministers not horrifically cooked their national books. They would also not be in the fiscal pickle they are in if their populace did not make individual fraud in tax evasion a national pastime (and of course their outlays and entitlement programs are textbook cases of tribal vote buying). They also could not have run up the debt they did, no matter how cooked their books, if they hadn’t been granted access to the borrowing power of the more austere and credit worthy northern Europe states via inclusion in the European monetary union. So what we see in Greece is not a natural or typical outcome of overgenerous welfare and entitlement spending but rather a unique and highly unusual perfect storm which resulted from a nation entering a typical overspending phase and then seizing a highly untypical opportunity to avoid tough medicine by using fraud to enter into an unusual compact with other more wealthy nations.
    My point being: saying “we have to cut spending or we’ll turn into Greece” is a gross oversimplification and ignores the other factors that led to the current remarkable Greek predicament.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:


      Obviously our situation is different in detail than Greece’s. But are you sure it isn’t the same in broad outline? One particular difference is that there is nobody big enough to bail us out.Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        But on the other hand, we have set our own monetary policy and print our own currency.Report

        • Avatar James K says:

          New Zealand was doing both of those things in the 1970s and it didn’t stop us running out of money.Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

            The New Zealand dollar/pound/kiwi also wasn’t the world’s reserve currency.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              That gives us some cushion, but only to such point as the world decides we’re not a good bet as a reserve currency. Obviously we’re nowhere near close to that yet, but it obviously is not an impossibility.

              In other words, if we rely too much on that cushion, we’ll dissipate it.Report

              • Avatar Don Zeko says:

                Sure, but the fact that there does exist a theoretical limit on our borrowing doesn’t prove much. If I make $150,000 a year with good credit, $50,000 in my savings account and no outstanding student loans or credit card debt, there’s a cushion of possible borrowing that I could potentially exhaust. But that hardly means that I shouldn’t take out a mortgage.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Look if the argument is that the US isn’t Greece or anything near it I’m all aboard. If the takeaway from that is that the US is fine and no change in behavior is needed I’m gonna have to get off.

              The US is in a powerful position economically but it’s unambiguously weaker than it used to be and that weakness has failed to hit home primarily because our economic peers* have either suffered even greater weakening that we have or are semi-modern economic systems of corruption and graft. No sensible person can expect this state of affairs to continue. Europe could either get its act together or pop at any time (and really either would work, it’s the separation agony the market fears more than what happens after); China or India could continue to rationalize and reform their financial systems; Russia could.. erm.. okay I’ll give you that Russia seems kindof stuck. The point is that sooner or later there’s a serious possibility that the US could fall off the top of the heap.

              That said I’m pretty sanguine. All that’s really required is a demonstration to the markets that the US political establishment can be relied on to be rational actors. All that will require is any one of the following three scenarios:
              -The Dems are elected and behave like they have been behaving since the 90’s
              -The Republicans are elected and behave like they behaved since the 80’s but NOT like they have behaved since 2000.
              -There’s a muddled election but the two sides cut pretty much any concrete deal.

              It won’t actually take a lot to nail the US down in its top dog position. But it will take something.

              *The rest of the Anglosphere and many other mid sized countries are actually being much better run than we are and are prospering accordingly but the brutal math of population, money, and size remove them from contention as economic peers.**

              **For now.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        I am absolutely certain Roger, we’re utterly unlike Greece now and there is no realistic prospect of us becoming like them. Our situation right now is massively different than Greece’s in many fundamental ways and there is no prospect of our following the path that Greece took that led to this historic calamitous moment for them. I’ll elaborate:

        -The Greek welfare state is massive and also highly inefficient (for instance they run actual state owned companies as welfare delivery vehicles). The Greek electorate reacts to every attempt to cut this mess by rioting. In contrast the American welfare state, while not taking any prizes, is ~comparatively~ lean and nondistortionary. The American electorate reacts to attempts to cut spending by complaining on the internet.

        -The Greek economy is taxed at a very high level, most likely well past the point where the high rates simply encourage evasion and bring in less revenue. The American economy is being taxed at a historically low level. They’re quite literally opposites.

        -The Greek taxpaying base is rife with mass fraud and mass tax evasion. The American taxpaying base is again literally opposite with relatively little fraud and little tax evasion.

        -The Greek economy is run on the Euro currency. The Greek government has no (legal) ability to get more Euros except by taxing to get them (ineffective) or borrowing to get them (no one will lend).
        The American economy on the other hand runs on the American dollar which is the current go to currency of refuge in the current global economic crisis. The American government has myriad options for getting more dollars: they can simply print more (inflation risks are pretty much prostrate at the moment), borrow more (people are currently paying negative interest rates to put their assets into American national debt) or tax more (the economy is being historically lightly taxed).

        -The Greek economy is moribund, crushed on one side by the economic crisis and on the other by a currency that is being managed for the benefit of economies like Germany. The American economy is in a slow recovery with good fundamentals and the support of a currency that, while not perhaps as growth oriented as some would prefer, is being managed with an eye towards encouraging American economic growth.

        So no, America is nothing like Greece right now. Greece’s problems are fundamental; their citizenry violently doesn’t wish to accept lower government payments, higher taxes or the elimination of their national fraud and graft and structural; their relationship and intertwining with the EU and Euro. America’s problems are simply political. A far right wing government could easily dramatically cut spending without raising taxes and balance the budget overnight and suffer only a historic defeat in the next election; a left wing government could easily balance the budget similarly with massive tax increases without cutting spending and suffer a similar fate*; a muddled government could raise some taxes and cut spending in moderation and in some of those formulations not prompt a new recession or be guaranteed electoral defeat. The lending market is perfectly aware of these facts; mind. They bid US debt down to negative interest rates without any concern. The only time they get twitchy is when they’re reminded that some of our politicians are out of their goddamn minds (see the debt showdown fiasco). As some of my Euro friends wryly put it at the time “America is jealous of Europe’s epic problems so their politicians are trying to manufacture a crisis of their own.”

        Now what would it take for America to turn out like Greece?

        First we’d have to raise taxes way way way up, like higher than ever in the history of the country. We’d have to raise it so high that people started pulling out all the stops to hide their income from the IRS including outright fraud. Also the IRS would need to be gutted in a manner that the GOP can only fantasize about, they can’t find the fraud even though it’s everywhere and even when they find it they don’t bother chasing after it.

        Next we’d have to spend all that money. The left wing would have to make huge entitlement and intervention programs the likes of which they never even dreamed. We’re talking a lot of money. The right would get to bloat the defense budget up to the way they’d like to. Maybe a couple more Bush Minor style wars would help. Lots of colluding with companies on both sides of the aisle to pad bottom lines and establish pensions and employee numnums would probably also be necessary. This is possible it’d just take a bit.

        Next the entire public financial apparatus of the US would have to start cooking the books en masse to hide all of the results of these shenanigans and somehow the entire world market would have to simply not care enough to look into the numbers very closely.

        Next someone would have to offer to let us use their currency. Essentially after all the aforementioned misbehavior the American dollar would be bust so say Canada would have to sign a monetary agreement where the US currency is now the Canadian dollar and the economy of Canada is underwriting US debt. Also of course the global market would have to collectively lose their minds and somehow think that Canada ~could~ back up the entire US debt even if they wanted to and lend the US tons of money in Canadian dollars.

        So after all of those steps then and only then, Roger, would the US be in a position like Greece’s. Any comparisons that imply that the US is actually like Greece right now or that suggest the country is anywhere close to becoming like Greece is hyperbolic idiocy of the highest order. The facts just don’t fit. Keep in mind that just because the US isn’t like Greece doesn’t mean everything is hunky dorey on this side of the pond. The US has some problems and there’s going to be some unpleasant fiscal medicine necessary to fix those problems. The medicine the US has to take, however, compares to the medicine Greece needs the way a foul tasting tonic compares to having your entire body cavity hollowed out, scrubbed with bleach and new organs put in.

        *note that both the extreme solutions would probably prompt a new recession.Report

        • Avatar Plinko says:

          I think the shorter version of this is simply that institutional designs matter whole heckuva lot more than out political rhetoric generally allows.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            I guess yeah, or shorter and pithier “Anyone who claims the US is on the verge of a Greece scenario is either smoking something very palatable or peddling something very unpalatable. “Report

        • Avatar Roger says:


          I definitely agree there are lots of different details. I also agree that the US is not as far along. Most importantly I also agree that it is by no means inevitable.

          However, The USNews reports that we have future unfunded liabilities in the range of $61 trillion, or over a half million per household. Cato estimates it twice as high.

          My point is that we cannot continue the path we are on of unfunded government handouts. It is a recipe for disaster and we both know it.

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

            $61 Trillion sounds like a lot and it’s a nice trick to use by think tanks who want to cut the welfare state. Until you realize that number is over the next almost century in an economy that has $15 trillion dollars worth of today.

            Guess what, I, as an adult have unfunded liabilities probably near $2 million dollars over my lifetime. It won’t mean I won’t be able to pay them.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Roger I believe I’ve firmly established that the difference between Greece and the US is massive and fundamental. The US requires a course correction of a couple degrees in one direction or another (or a correction of half as much by splitting the difference). Greece on the other hand requires a decade in dry-dock with a complete overhaul of its entire political/economic system and a renegotiation with its currency partners with ramifications that impact the entire periphery and the core of the European Union.

            The US cannot pursue its current fiscal behavior indefinitely. Irregardless of that fact the US situation bears utterly no resemblance to Greece and anyone who seriously thinks it does is either trying to sell something or I would have serious doubt as to their possession of their faculties.Report

  7. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    Great post Burt.

    “For the most part, these four kinds of aid to individuals is what modern liberal democracies spend their public money on. Partisans compete with one another to implement these programs, because there is political reward for so doing.”

    This I think is important, and true, and inescapable at this point, i.e. in the modern world you can not provide for yourself, by yourself, to any meaningfully large degree.

    As for the perversion of factional politics, I wonder whether you think the United States and Britain have failed or succeeded similarly in this degree, or whether they provide a meaningful contrast.

    It’s my feeling that because of it’s parlimentary system, Britain has, in some ways, been able to benefit from coalition building in a way the the United States, for the greater part of a half century now, has been less capable of acheiving.

    Bi-polar systems are must more prone to stagnation than others, which leads me to think that that the calsification along partisan lines, and the Congressional rules and electoral laws which encourage this, will not be improved upon any time soon, but only further stagnate.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:


      Does this mean GB is less stagnant? In what ways?Report

      • Avatar Ethan Gach says:

        That would be the implication. Now whether they are or not is beyond me to say. I don’t follow British politics, so I don’t have a good handel on how they’ve dealt with recent obstacles.

        My instinct is that the 3 main parties help drive through more policy, so for instance, whether austerity measures are helpful or not, they are at least able to meaningfully implement them.

        Now whether they have as bad a track record as the U.S. in undoing policy once it’s seen to be usefless or even harmful, is something I can’t answer (and perhaps they as shackled by liberal democracy as we are).Report

    • Avatar NewDealer says:

      You bring up a very good point. Largely because I brought up the same point below 😉

      Our society is a lot more complicated than the society of the early American Republic. It was very easy for Thomas Jefferson to imagine a country filled with small and self-sufficient yeoman farmers.

      Doing so now would result in a great reduction of wealth.Report

  8. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    It should probably be noted that federalism is a very specific brand of liberal democracy.

    Positioning states against one another has the effect of exagerrating any initial factionalism. As does the fact that we elect individuals, rather than vote for parties which then distribute seats propotionally. Each of these steps, as well as others, has a way of making representative demoracy more akin to shilling, where loyalty is more important than results.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      It’s interesting that you see federalism as “positioning states against one another.” That’s a very antagonistic view of federalism. I’m not arguing that states don’t in some ways compete with each other, but I don’t think that’s even remotely the dominant aspect of federalism, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere.Report

  9. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I suppose this is another example when not having any Scot-Presbyterian or Calvinist blood in my veins is a bit of a problem.

    I don’t see the problem with a government providing a safety net and social welfare programs. In fact, I would say that this is one of the primary responsibilities of civil government. Yes there are issues of paying for things is important. But the whole concept of moral hazard is an odd one when it comes to healthcare. Why do we always hear about moral hazard in the U.S.? Do British conservatives and libertarians talk about moral hazard and the welfare state? I imagine not.

    As you said, the writer was an 18th-century Scott, he could not imagine how complex society would get and this goes beyond the Industrial and post-Industrial society. This goes to medical advancements and other procedures. When the writer lived it was quite possible to imagine a low-government society filled with largely self-sufficient yeoman farmers. Same with the early American republic. Now we would view such a nation as being a poor one. Likewise, modern medicine can provide for relatively happy lives for people who would have been quickly dead during the 18th-century.

    Complex society produces complex problems that demand often very tricky solutions. These are not necessarily cures just policies that make a problem better or worse.

    Cronyism and partisan patronage seem to be problems that are vexing to all forms of government and not just liberal democracies. There are always hacks of all ideologies seeking a sinecure. Some positions will always be seen as a reward for party loyalty and service. For example plumber ambassadorships like Japan and the UK. I don’t think these are problems that society will ever be rid of because they are the result of human emotion and psychology, not forms of government. You can find ways to minimize the impact of cronyism but it will never go away.

    For all of our troubles, the basic forms of American democracy have so far proven to be very secure. Same with the British parliamentary system and in countries like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      But the whole concept of moral hazard is an odd one when it comes to healthcare.

      “I want to quit my job, but I need the insurance.”Report

      • Avatar Don Zeko says:

        What you don’t hear, of course, is this:

        “I don’t have to pay for it, so let me go out and splurge on some chemotherapy this weekend.”Report

        • Avatar MikeSchilling says:

          Well, I wouldn’t have had four colonoscopies this year if I’d had to pay for them.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          Moral hazard is the tendency of insurance to reduce the incentives to avoid the thing being insured against. If we offer a form of social insurance that pays for your medical care if you can’t afford it yourself, this means that people won’t work as hard to avoid the situation of being unable to afford their own health care insurance.

          And splurging on chemotherapy is a strawman. The reality is that a great deal of medical care is of very dubious cost-effectiveness, and possibly even worse than useless. For example, recent research suggests that routine prostate examinations may actually do more harm than good by leading to overly aggressive treatment of slow-growing tumors at the cost of severe side effects.

          Free medical care doesn’t cause consumers to go in for chemotherapy for the hell of it, but it does cause them to consume more medical care of dubious cost-effectiveness.Report

          • Avatar Don Zeko says:

            The evidence that health care spending decisions resemble the rational consumer model that works in most markets is awfully thin. I don’t dispute that some people pay for unnecessary procedures that they wouldn’t if they were paying out of pocket, but then it’s also true that many people forgoing preventative care or genuinely useful screening procedures because they are, in fact, paying out of pocket. Rather than having this debate in the land of conceptual models and anecdotes, it’s much more useful to look at how health care systems actually function in the aggregate. And comparing carious systems to each other doesn’t indicate that higher out of pocket spending does much or anything to limit spending. The fact is that this is a market that is doomed to fail. One way or another, you gotta ration.Report

            • Avatar Roger says:

              Just to clarify, Don. Your recommendation is actually that we should ration for those unable to afford airfare to the health care of their choice. Just saying….Report

  10. Avatar Kris says:

    I’m a big Likko fan. But I’m not a fan of this post, to put it mildly. Indeed, this post seems like the distillation of everything that is wrong with the fiscal ideas of mildly right-leaning people in the U.S.

    Let me go point by point.

    1. “And it’s noteworthy that every contemporary liberal democracy on the planet spends a majority of its national budget on a four-part suite of social welfare: old age pensions, medical care of varying and escalating degrees of universality, public housing, and nutrition”

    Yes, but over time contemporary liberal democracies become wealthier. (A sign of stability and success despite the borrowing!) Thus people in these societies have more and more disposable income that can be used to solve social problems. Wealthy and upper-middle class people now actually need less of their cash to buy essentials. Thus they can easily afford to give more.

    We then use that money to buy more medicine and educate more children. (A good thing!) And unfortunately, the newer market economies don’t seem to distribute wealth very well on their own. (For example, poor, unskilled workers in a free trade economy can’t bargain for higher wages as effectively as they used to. So they can’t pay for their kids college or their own health. But the economy they work in is producing more wealth than ever. So, the government has to transfer more wealth which shows up as higher spending. But we have more wealth to pay for it!

    2. “And all this stuff costs money and the government spends money it doesn’t have to pay for it all.”

    We have plenty of money to pay for it. We paid for it easily under Clinton. Lots of democracies with sensible tax polices run incredibly low deficits and debts. (Australia) Sometimes countries run up big debts like us in WWII. But as long as a country has control over its currency and the sanity to deal with it correclt, the debt can be dealt with really easily.

    3. “Rare are the moments in history when governmental austerity is seen as politically desirable.”

    This is because austerity is rarely in the form of cutting social spending is rarely desirable. Its never desirable in a downturn. Its sometimes desireable in a good economy. And lots of countries have cut spending or kept it flat and under inflation. We cut healthcare spending in Canada in the 90’s, for example.

    4.”The real argument against Obamacare is, it seems to me, “We can’t afford this”

    As you recognize, that’s a foolish, foolish argument. Every 1st world, liberal democratic country can afford universal healthcare.

    5. I don’t buy that argument myself, but I can see it. So why not deficit-spend to attract voters to your side of the fence? The answer is “Greece.”

    Greece will never happen in the U.S. as you surely, surely know. The U.S. has its own currency which makes default very difficult. A worst case scenario would require a deflation of the currency, which sucks, but would allow US exports to be more competitive, allowing for a reasonably quick recovery. (Argentina, a relative basketcase, with nowhere near our wealth has managed this feat.)

    But our current and historic debt levels are so, so far away from even an Argentina style problem its laughable. Britain, Canada, Australia, S Korea, and even Japan (with a debt problem twice as bad as ours) are nowhere near such a crisis. The tax base in the U.S. is so strong, current and future debt projections aren’t problematic.

    Worrying about a Greek style problem in the U.S. is like worrying about attack by Martians. It could happen in theory, but its ridiculous nonetheless. Greece had so many problems we don’t that the comparison is madness. They adopted a foreign currency. They were a poor country using a rich country’s currency. They lied about their finances. Their people were bankrupt. (Total US household wealth is doing very well. Its the opposite of Greece.)Report

  11. Avatar Kris says:

    I also don’t get the question of the symposium.

    “Our opening question is: “Is liberal democracy viable?””

    Uh, that’s an empirical question. To answer it you look at democracies and observe if they are alive and then you check again later to see of they are still alive. And as near as I can tell, liberal democracy has been viabling all over the place, for hundreds of millions of people, in some places for centuries and others for decades, all over the world.

    Any prediction that it might not be viable flies in the face off the evidence, a giant Christie-sized bag of Doritos of evidence.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      “Is liberal democracy viable” is in part an empirical question, and I’d agree that the data so far indicates that it is indeed viable.

      It’s also in part a theoretical or a philosophical question. In the OP, I tried to blend theory and experience, looking back to concerns raised when liberal democracy was still a new idea.

      It’s also an invitation to critique empirical data. One could argue that what we have today, particularly in the United States, is neither liberal or democratic other than in a superficial sense. I intend to tackle that issue later in the week when my day job slows down a bit.

      And you know what? It’s an invitation to all sorts of other ways of looking at the evidence, or the definitions, or the theories that I haven’t thought of myself and never would. That’s why it’s a symposium, because other people think differently than you or I do.Report

      • Avatar Kris says:

        How about this for a symposium topic: “Does clean water make people healthier?” ir “Will continued access to clean water help keep people healthy?”

        That’s an easy to answer empirical question, too. All the data suggests that societies that have access to clean water are healthier. You observe societies with clean water and they’re healthier. You generalize. (Personal experience and pretheoretical theorizing don’t enter into the proper method for answering the question.)

        When we observe liberal democracies over time they remain viable over time. Democracy in Canada is living at T1, then we observe it at T2 and it’s still living. That’s an observation of its viability. Generalize from the centuries and decades we have of observations of data and you get the conclusion that liberal democracy is viable. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a stronger empirical case than this.

        I don’t see how theory or philosophy enter into it. (As a practicing philosopher with a PhD and everything, I would love to think that all questions are philosophical, but they aren’t.) Maybe you’re interested in the moral question of whether liberal democracy is just. (You suggest that the poor and middle class people keep asking for more spending and benefits, and maybe you think that will lead to injustice against the rich.)

        At best, you’ve made a bunch of observations that seem to imply that if democracy shouldn’t be viable, if claims X, Y, and Z are true. That is, you suggest that the poor and middle class will always demand more and more benefits, and this isn’t sustainable, but in a liberal democracy they will have the power to ask for more and more, so therefore liberal democracies should be destroyed by the poor and the middle class demanding too many benefits for themselves. But liberal democracies don’t destroy themselves. The demands for too many benefits don’t and haven’t bankrupted liberal democracies. Therefore, one of the claims of your theory (that implies that we should expect to observe liberal democracy failing) must be false.

        When theory conflicts with evidence, the theory goes, not the evidence.Report

        • Avatar Kris says:

          Sorry that first sentence of the third paragraph should read “Based on some observations of spending and the demands of the poor,I have a theory that democracy shouldn’t be viable, if my theory composed of claims X, Y, and Z is true.”Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I dunno. There are theories about the health of the planet that strike me as likely to result in liberal democracy being fairly heavily impacted.

          I mean, in 1950, had you asked if Communism was viable, you could have easily laughed at the question. Of course it is! Look at the USSR! East Germany! Why, Southeast Asia looks like it will soon be adopting the political system as well! Look at these news articles from these well-respected reporters about how well Stalin’s Russia is doing! How dare you???

          And, of course, now we know that Communism does not work. Or, at least, that it wasn’t really tried (Trotsky!).

          There are a lot of Liberal Democracies around today… but perhaps it’s proverbially 1950. Perhaps, in proverbial 2012, we can argue whether Liberal Democracy was ever truly attempted.Report

          • Avatar Kris says:

            Liberal democracy has been around for centuries in one form or another and decades in its current form and in more countries than communism and is far more succesful. There is far more data than the data in 1950 on Communism.

            Less data implies a lower degree of confidence.

            Or maybe you mean that sometimes something that is empirically well-confirmed turns out to be false. (Black swans and all that.) Sure, it might turn out that democracy isn’t viable. It also might turn out that clean water gives people cncer and will start making people unhealthy. Its just incredibly unlikely given the large amount of data that all suggests clean water is healthy.

            Indeed, I’d say twe have almost the same amount of data suggesting that clean water causes health as we do liberal democracies are viable.

            But you know, Beria! and Clinton killed Vince Foster! You hypocrite. How dare you accuse me of supporting Stalin, Jaybird.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              I wasn’t accusing you of supporting Stalin, Kris. I was pointing out that we thought that Communism was sustainable in 1950.

              As it turns out, we were wrong.

              Now we look at Liberal Democracy in the US. How old would you say it is?

              I think that the argument can easily be made that it only goes back to the 19th Amendment. That’s fewer than 100 years… and that’s assuming that we agree that the 19th is a good place to start the clock.

              I don’t know that “decades” give us anywhere near enough data.Report

              • Avatar Kris says:

                Quit accusing libertarians of personally supporting sexual harrasment Jay Bird.

                Less data then. More countries, more years, more success for liberal democracy.

                I am amazed that anyone doubts that the inductive case for liberal democracy being viable isn’t strong. Its like debating global warming skeptics. “Yes, Kris, but scientists once thought there was global cooling, so maybe they’re wrong now about global warming.”

                I think you should start an Intrade-style market for the failure of liberal democracies. You’ll make a killing when Canada and Germany turn into Mad Max-like autocracies as a result of the insatiable demands of the poor for more social security. “Two hosers enter, one hoser leaves! Two hosers enter,one hoser leaves!”Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Huh. Global warming is exactly why I’m beginning to suspect that liberal democracy isn’t viable.

                Liberal democracy, after all, will tend to vote for dessert for dinner tonight, vegetables for dinner tomorrow, cans to be kicked down the road, sprawl being preferable to urban living, and cheap energy is better than expensive.

                But, as I said, it’s still 1950. Proverbially. Hey… maybe things will work out.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Jay if there’s one thing that has become abundantly clear in the great recession it’s that Global warming can’t threaten liberal democracy. Hell it can’t even stand up to high gas prices or unemployment.Report

              • Avatar Kris says:

                I mean, since one fairly weak inductive argument turned out to have a false conclusion, that means all inductive arguments, even ones with much data are all poor arguments.

                Jesus, Jaybird. I think you and I have irreconcilably different ways of looking at the world. I don’t think we’ll learn from each other. The Beria incident made me think we’re not reaching each other and you’re unreasonable skepticism about overwhelmingly strong inductive arguments just sinks it.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                What’s my unreasonable skepticism about which overwhelmingly strong inductive argument, again?

                That stuff that has been sustainable so far will remain so? Duh?Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            Re: Jaybird,

            Robert Kaplan wrote a (at least temporarily) (in)famous essay asking whether democracy was just a moment.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              I’m kicking around the idea of uncaging Evil Jaybird and questioning whether Liberal Democracy is, in fact, bad. The reason I don’t want to is because I got into a discussion over Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s works a couple of weeks ago and his stuff is still fresh in my brain. I don’t know if I want to be the Hans-Hermann Hoppe guy on the site, even if it’s through an alter-ego.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          This same thing happened with the inequality symposium–someone had to immediately jump in and criticize the framing of the initial question.

          For god’s sake, it’s just a kick starter! Why fret about how terrible it is until you see the posts–respond to the actual posts, not the question that isn’t going to be followed very closely anyway. And if you feel a burning need to write a long comment criticizing the question, turn it into a post to contribute to the symposium!Report

          • Avatar Kris says:

            That was me, then, and its me now.

            Why is a dumb kickstarter a good kickstarter?Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Maybe you’re just a dick, then. What I see is the classic group dynamic where someone does the work, and someone else doesn’t lift a finger except to complain about how it’s being done.

              I’m going with Burt, in saying that “is liberal democracy viable” is also a theoretical question. Viable for what? At what? If I manage to get my post written, it will demonstrate that democracy is not a viable means of discerning a group preference.

              So maybe the problem here isn’t that the question is really dumb, but that you’re being reactive, instead of thinking it through.

              As I said, if you got thoughts, write a post. Help the League community build it’s symposium. Don’t just sit on the sidelines trying to tear it down before it even gets started.Report

              • Avatar Kris says:

                Maybe I’m right and a dick.

                You guys are smart and tough. You can take me being a dick if it moves the conversations in a better direction.Report

              • Avatar Burt Likko says:

                Yes, we can. No one here is made of gossamer. And as between you and I, I was content to let you have the last word in our exchange (although I maintain that there’s nothing wrong with others jumping in to the discussion).

                But I would like to call your attention to the name of the blog. The word “Gentlemen” at minimum implies that those who engage here will eschew dickishness.

                So, maybe you’re right, maybe you’re not. Either way, it’s better not to be a dick.Report

              • Avatar NewDealer says:

                Living in San Francisco for four years has turned my body composition to gossamer by 15 percent. Luckily I am still 85 percent New York concrete and steal.

                Very oblique reference to a probably not really Kurt Vonnegut quote is hopefully not lost.Report

              • Avatar Kris says:

                Here is a better thread topic:

                “Is it always wrong to be a dick?”

                I’d say the answer is “No, sometimes you have to be a dick.”

                I’d also cite the fact that calling someone a dick (for no reason than that they said a specific question was stupid) makes you a dick, and you and James believe you should call me a dick, so that means you believe that sometimes you ought to be a dick, too.

                If you want to call me a dick for implying that you are a dick and complete the circle of name calling, feel free.

                In retrospect, I think my dickishness in calling out a stupid question as stupid was justifiable and the dickishness of calling me a dick was not justified. Note, I called the question itself stupid. I was callled a dick personally.

                There’s a difference.Report

        • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

          I agree that it’s a curiously formed question, but not that it’s susceptible to simple empirical validation. To ask if something “is viable” is not the same as asking if it is alive. I’d say more, but it makes me feel like a bad sport: If I had given the question more serious thought earlier, I could have shared whatever doubts with the “convener” ahead of time. So, though I’m tempted to ask why the question struck Mr. Likko as a reasonable question, I think it’s more fair to ask why everyone else, including me, presumably found it reasonable enough at least on first glance.Report

          • Avatar Kris says:

            “Viable” means likely to keep living. There is a lot of data suggesting not just that liberal democracies alive but that they keep on living. On the basis of that evidence, betting that liberal democracies are likely to stop being viable is absurd.Report

            • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

              No, that’s not the meaning of “viable.” The question of viability is asked in regard to a proposal, scheme, entity, etc., that is not yet in place, or that will be required to perform under altered conditions. We ask if a plan is viable, or we might ask if a particular mode of operation will continue to be viable. The symposium question treats liberal democracy as a proposition. It would tend to imply that liberal democracy as such is not being practiced, or that what is currently in operation (in whatever unspecified relevant context) is not really liberal democracy (perhaps, somewhat as per Jaybird, in the same way that Soviet Communism was not and as a matter even of official ideology never pretended to be authentic communism).

              In short, the question as written does not in my view qualify as well-formed, and so doesn’t really admit of simple empirical validation. I think that the initial reasonable interpretation for most readers can be assumed to be the question of continued viability of liberal democracy as form of governance at the level of the nation-state within the international system of states, more or less over the middle term. However, the problems with the question, in combination with encouragements from the convener, will probably lead people to take it as an invitation to “write something about liberal democracy.” We’ll just have to see whether it turns out to have been good enough for work on government.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Soviet Communism was not and as a matter even of official ideology never pretended to be authentic communism

                While this is something that everybody knows today, I’d just like to point out that this is not something that everybody knew back then. Or, if they did, they put a surprising amount of effort into defending it as authentic despite knowing that it wasn’t even pretending to be such.Report

              • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

                It may seem like a trivial or obsolete question, but as a matter of official ideology, the soviet socialist republic, though clearly the most advanced, most just, most truly democratic, and totally awesomest form of government ever realized on Earth, comrade, could not fully realize communism until the world revolution was complete. Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist democratic centralism would have been taken as an authentically communist means to the authentically communist end, but not the same thing as that end. We then get into the usual problems of a word or set of closely related words that may designate a theory, a mode of operation or praxis, or particular states or parties or factions, with the appropriateness and precise or effective meaning of the designation in every instance potentially a subject of multi-sided and even violent contestation.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                So many memories…Report

              • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

                I have to say that I’m sensing some flagging certainty in the cause on your part, comrade. Some self-criticism might be in order.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew says:

        Burt, just one observer, but for my money the post contained next to no theory, at least actual theory of democracy, and I was a bit disappointed for it, though not in a way where I had expecations dashed. Just idle hopes.

        Madison’s tinkering with ideas of how to structure/manage a democracy-in-the-works in one particular place at a particular time in history (yes, going forward, but that is still particular) in order to avoid certain quite foreseeable practical problems to my mind don’t rise to the level of theorizing about democracy.

        And that’s okay, because the question you’ve posed here – I have to agree with above commenters – really isn’t very theoretical at all. Yes, you have to advance certain models for predicting how people and structures will respond over time given different initial set-ups. But that presupposes that you’re gonna try to do the democracy thing one way or the other. To me, theory would have to go to the questions of what is it in the first place — could you say you’re going to set up a democracy and then do it and say you’ve done it, but in fact you haven’t? And then, a deeper question – why would you want to anyway? Isn’t it all a bit romantic?

        I have to say that I think TVD’s distinction between the lesser something-or-other of prediction (and its uses) and the better something-or-other of ideas (though obviously these are all ideas, so I’ll say that the issue is theory, since that’s what you invoke) applies a bit here. And again, that’s perfectly okay. Theory is not what you’ve asked abut here. But there is a reason that Madison et alia came to be known as framers, drafters, architects. They were making things, not just ruminating on them. I don’t think they had enough distance from the practice of the thing to which the idea of democracy addresses itself to be able to be said to be trustworthy theoreticians of it. But even if that is unfair and wrong, ultimately, to me, what they produced for the most part just doesn’t look much like theorizing about democracy in a proper sense.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        They may be viable in the short run, but recent experience has brought their long-run sustainability into question.Report

  12. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    LBJ using the Great Society’s expansion of the American welfare state to break Republicans’ generational stranglehold on the African-American vote;

    The Civil Rights Act? The Southern Strategy? Also, the Great Society served to combat the serious problem of elder poverty, whatever the race of the impoverished individual.

    I’m pressed for time so this won’t be as thoroughly thought through as I’d like. I’d attribute a great deal of current fiscal woes to the something-for-nothing Laffer Curve proponents and W. Bush cutting taxes while conducting two wars. One joke in British politics is that the British want Scandinavian level public services on American level tax rates. One sector of the American electorate (ahem, Republicans), are engaged in selling an even more fantastical tale. Scandinavian public services are well and truly affordable for the wealthy developed countries of the world, and certainly that level of social insurance isn’t beyond reach of the wealthiest developed nation. You just have to adjust tax policy proportionally.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      I see the Republicans’ Southern Strategy as an attempt to respond to inroads the Great Society was making into poaching what had been traditional Republican voters — the Democrats poached out some Republicans, so the Republicans found a group they could poach for themselves. And it never really worked 100% — there is still very little formal Republican machinery in at least two Southern states that I know of (West Virginia and Arkansas), although those states do indeed frequently vote Republican and it seems fair to say that the voters there are, as a whole, more conservative than centrist.Report

  13. Avatar James K says:

    Like others here, I’m not sure if you’ve identified a universal feature of democracy here Burt. My own country had this exact same problem. We hit the wall, but we came out OK on the other side. Sure it would have been better if we’d never hit the wall (the adjustment period was quite unpleasant), but the end result was some much-needed policy reform and a set of public norms that make a repeat much less likely.

    Let me put it this way, in one of the 2011 election debates the (left-wing) leader of the opposition suggested an increase in social spending (I forget what exactly) to be paid for by a tax increase. The Prime Minister then walked the audience through a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much the spending would cost and then asked his opponent how he planned to raise the rest of the money. This was seen as a master-stroke by the Prime Minister. The way you get a public that cares where the money comes from, is to have the bad experience of forced austerity borne of overspending.

    If your government is less likely to recover so well from fiscal crisis (which is an open question), then i would be inclined to blame your form of democracy more than democracy per se.Report

    • Avatar Burt Likko says:

      The Prime Minister then walked the audience through a back-of-the-envelope estimate of how much the spending would cost and then asked his opponent how he planned to raise the rest of the money. This was seen as a master-stroke by the Prime Minister.

      This is the sort of thing I was referring to at the end of the OP, when I wrote

      When a cultural value of the government spending no more than a reasonable amount more than it takes in becomes something that earns voters’ respect and praise, politicians will behave accordingly.

      Sound like you Kiwis have found a way to get there — good for you, I think it will serve your nation and your democracy very well. Let us Yankees learn from your example.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        Perhaps then a refinement of the question: Is the US’s very unique form of liberal democracy viable?

        Or, James K and I can get all snooty and sit in the corner asking “Why is the Westminster parlimentary system of liberal democracy so especially viable?” But then we’d come off like prats and my half canadian heritage would have me apologizing for a month.Report

  14. Avatar Ethan Gach says:

    The question could always be restated as, “Is there a viable alternative to liberal democracy.”Report