Crack-up, Part Deux

Written by David Frum on Monday June 16, 1997

It's been another bad week for conservatives. In France, the second round of legislative elections on June 1 proved every bit as devastating to conservatives as the first round a week before: The socialists won 268 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, with another 39 going to the Communists. (Communists! In 1997! Who said the French were chic?) The two conservative parties won only 247 of the seats in the Assembly.

The rebuke to President Jacques Chirac was all the more stinging because of the sheer preposterousness of the campaign promises of socialist leader Lionel Jospin: He promised to hire 350,000 more civil servants and to cut the work week from 39 to 35 hours without reducing anyone's pay. On the very next day, Canadians were taking their own more cautious lurch leftward. The governing Liberals saw their parliamentary majority slashed to a nerve- wracking 155 out of 301 seats. The biggest gainers: the socialist New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives, who began the campaign to the government's right and ended it far to the government's left with promises to cancel the government's scheduled cuts in social spending.

The humbled governments in both France and Canada were led by men whom reasonable people considered reasonable people. They were cutting social spending, it's true, but hesitantly, carefully, all the while trying to salvage as much of their welfare states as they could. Both governments were consistently praised by self-proclaimed moderates, who hailed their sensible, balanced approach to the fiscal problems of the modern state. And both have just suffered brutal punishment at the hands of their own people. Are there lessons here for other countries?

There's a Monty Python sketch in which John Cleese, playing a wealthy executive, has the concept of charity explained to him for the first time. With ever-rising incredulity, he struggles to understand: "You mean, I give you money and in return I get . . . nothing at all?" Democratic electorates seem to think the way Cleese does. It's one thing to reduce their unemployment benefits and make their pension schemes more lavish. But to tell them that you're doing all this to shore up the finances of the state, while in return they get . . . nothing at all . . . is to beg to be kicked out of office.

In Canada, for example, the average family is now paying more than one- third of its income in taxes. Even in tax-cutting Ontario, individuals hit combined federal-provincial income-tax rates of nearly 50 percent at incomes of $ 50,000. On top of that, there are federal and provincial sales taxes of up to 15 percent on everything one buys, taxes on gasoline and telephone calls, and payroll taxes for the Canada Pension Plan (which were just increased massively). At the same time, waiting lists are lengthening at the state medical monopoly, educational standards are deteriorating, and city streets are becoming dirtier. No wonder that pollsters are detecting rising levels of alienation: For most people, government is increasingly a rip-off.

Some especially flinty types may think that publics suffering from rising taxes and declining services are getting only what they deserve. After all, they voted themselves lower taxes and rising services in the 1980s. What did they think was going to happen? The public is composed, Michael Kinsley has complained, of "big babies." Why wipe away their tears when they're told that they can't have a new balloon to replace the one they just broke?

The trouble is that it's very hard to govern a democracy over the protests of its own people. As governments fail to come to grips with the crisis of the welfare state in ways satisfactory to their electorates, even their basic political stability comes into question. France's electoral system, which is designed to squeeze out small parties that fail to come to terms with the big ones, held the xenophobic National Front to only one of 577 seats. But the Front still won some 15 percent of the popular vote in the first round of balloting, indicating a truly disturbing degree of alienation from the institutions and moral norms of the Fifth Republic, and indeed the modern world.

Canada's political stability has broken down even more completely. You can't govern a parliamentary democracy when any five backbench members of parliament can put a pistol to the prime minister's head, and you can't offer the voters stark and clear alternatives to government policy in a five-way political debate. Worse still, Monday's result completes the destruction of Canada's system of national parties. The populist Reform party dominates the West; the old Conservative party holds on to ancient loyalties in the east; and the separatist Bloc Quebecois is reviled in English Canada. Even the Liberals, the only party with any remaining pan-national appeal, have lost their grip on the West and French-speaking Quebec. The whole country seems to have taken another giant step toward dissolution.

To avoid the turmoil of a France or a Canada, democracies that need to shrink overambitious public sectors must do so in ways that offer voters attractive tradeoffs instead of a dismal sense that everything is getting worse in every way. Conservative parties that offer their people large, offsetting tax cuts -- even if that requires larger spending cuts -- stand at least a fighting chance of convincing them of the need for spending reductions. People will consider trading public services for lower taxes; but nobody except an editorial writer ever willingly traded public services for a balanced budget or European unity.

That, however, won't stop the Republican party from trying. The Republicans are in the midst of signing off on a budget deal that takes away a great deal from Medicare beneficiaries and other powerful domestic interest groups. That's right and proper: Unless something is done, Medicare will wreck the public finances of the United States. In explaining why Medicare must be fixed, it's important to stress the public-spiritedness of the Republicans' actions, that Republicans are acting as they are with a view to the good of the whole polity. But it might also be prudent to have in the holster some more material inducements -- like substantial and immediate tax cuts.

In his cunning way, the president knows that. That's why he ensured that he got plenty of room for new porkbarrel spending for his constituencies as  his price for agreeing to Medicare reductions. He hopes to make good his political losses from the slowdown of the growth of one program with political gains from speeding up the growth of others.

The Republicans, unfortunately, will not be able to do the same. The $85 billion in tax cuts over five years that the Republicans got out of this deal will pay for capital-gains and estate-tax relief. But $ 85 billion over five years won't begin to pay for a middle-class tax cut, especially since the Republicans have conceded a big chunk of that $ 85 billion to the president for his "targeted" tax cuts to the families of university students. Which means that instead of offering Less Government and Lower Taxes, the Republicans are on the verge of mimicking John Major's Tories, Chirac's Gaullists, and Jean Chretien's Liberals to offer the voters in 1998 the GOP's own distinctive version of Nothing for Something. You could call it the John Cleese plan. Only it isn't very funny.

Originally published in The Weekly Standard