The Tyranny of the Agenda
Politicians and pundits tend to think that everything that occurs is relevant to the issue that happens to preoccupy them that day, just as scientists can fall into the analogous error of thinking that their observations automatically bear on the topic of the grant proposals. In a recent study of capuchin monkeys at Yale, for example, an economist set up a token economy for the animals. When the females began to hook for tokens, it was assumed, quite arbitrarily, that this primate prostitution reflected badly on the monkeys when it may have had more to do with the moral atmosphere of New Haven.
Making an analogous error, David Brooks recently delivered that the economic problems of Europe demonstrate the bankruptcy of the Left, even though, as I recall, very few rightists ever admitted that the former economic power of the West Germans was evidence of the superiority of Social Democracy or that the abysmal performance of American medicine has anything to do with our peculiar political economy. Political polemic aside, the performance of the European economy surely reflects a host of demographic factors; the aging of its population; the costs of absorbing the countries of the former Warsaw Pact into the system; and, crucially, the price of oil. The putatively socialistic institutions of Western Europe didn’t prevent many years of general prosperity in the region—remember the Wirtschaftwunder?—; and, in any case, since the socialistic parties in Europe have pursued a far more market-oriented policy over the last decade, one could just as easily maintain that it has been their abandonment of the true leftist faith that got them into trouble. My point is not that one or another of these explanations is right, but simply that determining which issues matter in such discussions is already a crucial and difficult question. Just because you happen to obsess about the proper balance between the public and the private doesn’t mean that everything happens because of the level of social spending in Norway.
Generals famously prepare for the last war; and, more generally, people go on worrying about the same old issues when the times change. I suspect that both the left and the right are part of a failing ancien regime that has fallen into this trap, though the stereotypical thinking of the right is vastly more harmful just now because the right is in charge. When Brooks denounces Europe in the name of a more dynamic if piratical economic policy, he is promoting remedies for the wrong disease. In an era of cheap fuel and demographic expansion, one could indeed make a case for a more laissez faire approach because too much welfare spending probably did reduce the overall growth rate of the European economies at a time when the great challenge and opportunity was still growth. Under contemporary conditions, on the other hand, it is at least problematic to suggest that building strip malls in Tuscany constitutes progress since it is not obvious that it constitutes progress in Nebraska. By the same token, promoters of a yet another New Deal fall into anachronism by supporting income redistribution as a way to shore up demand in an era when the most pressing need is to figure out how to suppress demand without crushing the economy or impoverishing a large part of the population.