WASHINGTON – Democracy and free markets anyone? By this I mean opting for a real republican government with fair rules, transparency, honesty, and constructive debates. And office holders who really believe that their job is to further the public good, while allowing private citizens who play by clear and fair rules to engage in whatever activity they may be interested in.
What happened to liberal democracies?
Does any of this still exist? The answer is a qualified yes. However, the real article is almost extinct. There are only approximations. Unfortunately, most self-described liberal democracies are only distant relatives of the original model.
In most Western countries, citizens mistakenly believe that it is perfectly alright to bend the political process and the state institutions so that they will provide for them, or at least subsidize them. This entitlement mind frame is a perversion of any honest notion of the state as guardian of the public good. And yet, the “welfare state” model is now the standard, with plenty of intellectuals willing to affirm its legitimacy and high moral standing.
Welfare and statism
To make things worse, the welfare state goes hand in hand with a statist economic model. Many people do not believe that public institutions should limit themselves to the role of impartial arbiters and enforcers when economic rules are broken. No, the state should run things, (banks, utilities, airlines, railways, factories), or at a very least dictate via minute regulations how they should be run.
All this amounts to a state that got bigger, more expensive and more powerful, and in most cases more wasteful. As a consequence, some people in charge of powerful institutions that control huge assets or resources have enormous power. And this often unchecked power is an open invitation to corruption.
Corruption in turn has the effect of a chronic, debilitating disease. It is nasty parasite that eats up resources, while engendering cynicism and sometimes despair. Who will have the enthusiasm to think about starting a new business when they know that at each step of the way there will an intrusive bureaucracy run by voracious corrupt officials demanding bribes?
Well, this is the picture. In some instances, it gets to be too much. And people protest, loudly. (Witness what is going on right now in Brazil, with daily street protests and demands for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff).
Ironically, even semi-dictators complain about corruption. Vladimir Putin commented that there is way too much corruption in the recently annexed Crimea. Think of that. According to Putin, the once oppressed ethnic Russians of Crimea, instead of showing gratitude towards their Russian liberators, engage in all sorts of shady practices. The level of corruption in Crimea is now so bad that even Putin thinks it is way too much.
Here is the picture
Well, without being too gloomy, here is the picture. Europe is slowly sinking under the weight of unsustainable public debt. Indeed, lacking enough revenue, this is the only way to finance all the benefits. Too much debt weighs on the economy. Too many regulations impede innovation, business formation, and therefore the creation of new employment. A bloated public sector fosters waste and corruption.
These days, confronted with economic stagnation, lack of opportunity and high unemployment, people are restless and unhappy. This being the case, they could opt for better political leaders.
But no, they do not do this. With few and limited exceptions, no way that any political force proposing to go back to the original free market, liberal democratic model could get vast popular support and succeed. “Yes, reforms may be nice, but don’t even think of touching my benefits”.
Looking for a “Big Man”
As real world solutions are excluded, the only alternative seems to be escapism. Yes, let’s elect someone —A Big Man— who will make all this go away. Let’s elect someone who will tell us that we are the innocent victims of a vicious cabal made out of corrupt politicians in bed with exploitative financiers. And then we have all the illegal immigrants who steal our jobs, not to mention unfair trading partners who cheat. Therefore, let’s elect someone who will clean house, throw all the rascals in jail, and start fresh. (Of course, the magic broom will steer clear of all my benefits and subsidies. And don’t you dare raise my taxes).
Hence the appeal of Beppe Grillo and his 5 Stelle movement in Italy, the National Front in France, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza in Greece. And, most recently, the British Labor Party choose as new leader Jeremy Corbyn, an old (age 66), unreconstructed Socialist whose ridiculous ideas have the fresh fragrance of the 1950s.
Bad news from America
But what about America, the reliable bastion of democratic capitalism? Bad news from that front. Right now, in what is supposed to be a serious exercise aimed at selecting candidates for President, the leading contenders on the left and on the right are people who in ordinary circumstances would be dismissed as laughable populists.
Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump
But no, they are not dismissed. They are in fact adored. On the left, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is an eccentric museum piece, a socialist who talks with passion about income redistribution. On the right, businessman Donald Trump argues passionately that he is really smart, while everybody else is stupid; and this is his main qualification for becoming President.
All this is disheartening. Confronted with this detachment from reality and consequent lowering of the level of policy debates, many commentators argue that this is a “healthy rebellion” against an ossified political system dominated by worn-out elites made out of professional politicians.
“You see, the people got fed up with the establishment, and so now they vent their frustrations by supporting populists who make outlandish claims. Perfectly understandable, no?”
Venting frustration is not smart
No, not at all! While we can understand that frustrated people may engage in foolish behavior, this does not make foolish behavior smart. It is in fact stupid and destructive. If we accepted this logic, then we should accept as “normal” the fact that some unemployed workers become thieves, while others become alcoholics or drug addicts.
Indeed, lets agree that “the system is inefficient and corrupt”. Let’s assume that this is true. Well, then let’s try to find more honest and more competent people to run it.
Electing Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, or Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump here in the US will solve nothing.
We no longer understand what this is all about
But then, why are socialists, populists and demagogues so in fashion, these days? Why the appeal of politicians who loudly promise easy fixes? Very simple: because many members of our societies have lost the meaning of the fundamental values that make republican government possible.
A republican government is supposed to manage the sectors that individuals cannot take care of on their own, while allowing people to freely live theirs lives. Government should take care of the truly needy; but it is not a philanthropy tasked with delivering plenty of goods at no cost. Government has costs that need to financed through fair taxation; but it is not a mechanism for redistributing wealth.
Government should be about the protection of individual rights, within clear and transparent rules. Government should allow all law-abiding private citizens to engage in wealth-producing activities. In other words, I can do my own thing, but this pursuit positively excludes taking advantage of others.
We got ourselves in this mess
Sadly, we forgot all this. And so we are caught between our deep dissatisfaction with our sorry-looking, stagnating democracies and our inability to see that we got here precisely because we lost our understanding of what the state is, and what it should do.