It must be obvious by now that we are experiencing something greater than the routine frustrations of the business cycle and the normal political discontents of democracies. There is, as political scientist William Galston writes in a recent essay, a “shared fear that an epoch is coming to an end.” The “liberal democratic bargain” that wealthy societies embraced after World War II is failing, and this has spawned widespread anxiety and conflict.
In its essentials, the bargain is easily described. Governments derived their legitimacy from their ability to maintain steady economic growth. Though there might be periodic recessions, none would be so powerful as to expose most people to extreme instability or social disorder. Meanwhile, rising incomes would improve living standards and allow governments to redistribute some gains to satisfy political goals. Countries might differ in their goals, but the underlying bargains were similar.
Politics was prosperity — and prosperity was politics.
Countless commentators (including me) have analyzed the disappointing economic recoveries and the parallel political backlashes in the United States, Europe and Japan. Galston, who served in the Clinton White House and now resides at the Brookings Institution, extends the process by asking a deeper question of whether the basic political superstructure is at risk.
What if governments can’t fulfill the role that justifies their legitimacy?
There are ominous precedents. “During the 1920s and 1930s,” Galston writes, “the failure of market economies and democratic political institutions boosted the credibility of totalitarian governance and central planning.”
Already, populist and nationalist parties in Europe have gained ground; in the United States, the fringe wings of the Republican and Democratic parties seem emboldened. Resentment is building. “Human experience suggests (and behavioral economics confirms) that the pain of loss exceeds the pleasure of gain,” Galston argues. “While failing to improve one’s well-being is disappointing, losing what one has enjoyed is productive of bitterness and anger.”
The obvious solution is to increase economic growth. But if that were easy, it would have occurred. Galston lists some obstacles. Innovation favors growth but also threatens existing businesses and jobs. Resistance by potential victims may provide short-run stability while reducing long-term growth. Large government deficits risk sharp changes in policy; the uncertainty may discourage business investment. High payments to the elderly for income support and health care may crowd out public spending on education and research and development, weakening growth.
Galston does not predict the collapse of market-based democracies. But he fears a vicious circle of public discontent and weak governments. “When times are hard, the varied social and economic groups . . . struggle with one another, each striving to minimize its losses at the expense of others,” he writes. “Elected governments mirror these divisions, which makes it hard for them to act effectively.”
I’ve read lots of analyses of our predicament. This is among the best. Still, I’d qualify Galston’s argument in three ways.
First, he goes too easy on economists. They oversold their capabilities to control the business cycle and raise incomes and living standards. The resulting optimistic climate caused political leaders to adopt policies that, perversely, increased short-term instability and reduced long-term growth.
Second, he fails to focus on the role of the 2008-09 financial crisis in frightening — and changing — public opinion. People were unnerved, precisely because the crisis was unpredicted (indeed, was thought to be impossible). Government was automatically discredited.
Third, he underestimates the resilience of modern democracies. For all their flaws, they seem to be, at least for most people in advanced societies, the least bad way of being governed. Their shortcomings need to be balanced against the alternatives. Still, this could change.
That’s Galston’s point. We view the lackluster recovery mainly in economic terms. This is too narrow. A political system that depends on strong economic growth will, when growth falters, lose its capacity to ensure social peace and stability. This loss, though hard to calculate, might one day dwarf the more easily measured economic damage.
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