23 January 2017

Trump is a symptom of the West’s addiction to welfare

By Bruno Alves

While I was watching Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony last Friday, I kept thinking about Andrew Sullivan’s lament, on the night of Trump’s election victory, that America had descended into “tyranny”.

Sullivan saw “a supremely talented demagogue who created an authoritarian cult with unapologetically neo-fascist rhetoric” that made America “jump off a constitutional cliff”, meaning “it will never be the same country again”

“A constitution designed to prevent democracy taking over everything has now succumbed to it. A country once defined by self-government has openly, clearly, enthusiastically delivered its fate into the hands of one man to do as he sees fit. After 240 years, an idea that once inspired the world has finally repealed itself. We the people did it.”

Sullivan’s words might sound overly-dramatic, but there’s some validity to them. Not in the sense that America’s first orange president will become a true tyrant, but that his election does say something about the predicament of the American Republic. It is a symptom of the American democracy’s degeneration into a desmiogarchy – the government of the shackled, of those in bounds.

This degeneration has been a feature of European politics for several years now. All over the continent (Austria, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, Portugal), an increasing number of voters have transferred their support from mainstream, “centrist” parties to extremist, populist ones, or have elected not to participate in the democratic process at all. The pattern will likely be repeated in future elections in the continent, whether in Germany, Italy or most particularly in France.

At the root of this “desmiogarchization” of European democracies lies the exponential growth of the state. Since the turn of the century, across the continent, public spending has soared as a share of national income – from 51.6 per cent in 2000 to 55.9 per cent in 2012 in France; from 45.9 per cent to 49 per cent in Italy; from 41.6 per cent to 46.9 per cent in Portugal.

It’s a trend that precedes the recent period: after the Second World War, European countries began establishing their respective versions of the welfare state. As the years and decades went by, they needed more and more money to pay for those systems and the bureaucratic apparatus to run them.

Governments offered people access to education, healthcare, and pensions when they reached old age or unemployment benefits when they lost their jobs. The purpose was to provide help for those who needed it – but in the end, these welfare states created a series of problems that seem difficult to overcome. They’re ineffective: they respond not to the needs of those who use them, but to the bureaucratic goals of political decision-makers. They’re unsustainable: there is an ever smaller number of workers paying for an ever-growing number of beneficiaries. And they’re unfair: because they try to provide for those who need it and those who don’t, they end up giving too much to those who don’t need it and not enough to those who do.

On the one hand, the inefficiency of these services feeds the electorate’s high – and growing – level of dissatisfaction with governments and politicians. On the other, European electorates seem pretty reluctant to give their support to any reform that might mean they would have to give up some of the things they take for granted.

The combination is lethal: most voters make their electoral choices on the basis of who they believe will be capable of keeping things as they are, but at the same time, those voters who want to keep the statist status quo intact grow unhappy with the practical results of that same statism. So voters blame the traditional governing parties for not being able to give them the statism of plenty they long for.

The consequences become ever more serious, and the dissatisfaction ever greater, pushing voters further to the extremes and in greater numbers, as they increasingly choose not to vote at all, or are seduced by parties and politicians who lure them with easy solutions like “keeping all the immigrants away” or “fighting the banks”. Trump’s victory and Bernie Sanders’ popularity clearly indicate that the US is now facing something similar.

It might seem odd to compare the US with Europe, when there is a widespread perception that America has no welfare state worthy of the name. But as Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait noted in their book The Fourth Revolution, the American welfare monster is hidden but real: while in Europe health spending shows up as government spending, in the US it is hidden as tax deductions. In 2012, if one were to include those disguised “tax expenditures”, America’s net social spending would have risen to 27 per cent, higher than in Italy or in Denmark.

Much like its European counterparts, the American welfare state is unsustainable in the medium/long term: the costs of Medicare and Medicaid (and of “Obamacare”) are expected to continue to soar in relation to GDP, as will those of Social Security.

And yet – again just like in European countries – American voters are far from excited with the prospect of giving it up. That’s understandable: “from California to the New York island” government spending has been paying for the well-being of a lot of people – especially those groups who more regularly vote.

As Wooldridge and Micklethwait wrote, “government spending cascades toward the old and the relatively well off”, paying for the “better schools” and “more police” in the better neighborhoods of “middle-income” taxpayers, who are also “more likely to go to a publicly financed university, to claim mortgage relief on their home, to own a farm that collects subsidies”.

The poor may not pay much income tax, but they don’t attract much public spending either. More significantly, they (unlike those middle-income families and richer individuals) are unable to enjoy the many tax deductions afforded by the system on the taxes they do pay. One generation in particular – that born between 1945 and 1965 – will profit most greatly from the system, while younger ones will progressively part with an increasingly more substantial portion of their income to finance that same system, while receiving progressively less money from it.

Politics, too, reflects this reality. As E.J. Dionne, the author of Why the Right Went Wrong, has written, “conservatives in power could never materially reduce the size of government because so much of what it does and spends money on – from supporting the elderly to protecting consumers to providing for the common defense – is so popular”. Only 21 per cent of Republican supporters are in favor of cuts in Medicare and only 17 per cent approve of reducing Social Security spending.

Indeed, the so Tea Party, often seen as an anti-statist movement, is in large part a reaction against the perceived loss of the benefits it used to bring: as Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson have argued, when it comes to entitlement programs, Tea Partiers are not concerned with “abstract free-market orthodoxy” as much as they are with “the perceived deservingness of recipients”. “The distinction between ‘workers’ and ‘people who don’t work’ is fundamental to Tea Party ideology”, they argue: it doesn’t want the welfare state to go away, it just wants its fruits to fall into the right baskets.

As the New York Times’ David Leonhardt has written, America long had no need to “make tough choices”: “economic growth filled Washington’s coffers with tax revenue” and “the small number of elderly held down the costs of Social Security and Medicare”, a combination that allowed the country to “afford to cut tax rates while expanding government benefits”.

But the result was that the Republicans could win the argument on low taxes, and the Democrats could win the argument on expanding the benefits. Donald Trump is in many ways the ultimate expression of this trend – he promises simultaneously “the biggest tax cut ever” and to “save” Social Security. And both parties are reluctant to anger their respective bases by cutting spending or raising taxes; instead they seem to believe their main job is to obstruct the other from trying to do anything to solve these issues.

Just as in Europe, people like Marine Le Pen or Beppe Grillo have been able to fuel and feed off the increasing anxiety over the decline of the welfare state and the governing paralysis that results from it, so have Sanders and Trump done the same in America.

If I’m right – and I hope I’m not – Trump’s election last November will be in a sense largely irrelevant, as will a hypothetical Le Pen victory next year: the political environment that created them obviously preceded them, and will be here to stay independently of their particular fates.

The desmiogarchization of our modern democracies, in other words, will also prevent them from enacting the reforms that might bring that process to an end – thus condemning themselves to a vicious cycle of degeneration.

Unlike in the 1930s, our democracies likely won’t become dictatorships. But they might become more illiberal, and our leaders more populist, and less and less able to improve (or even concerned with improving) the living standards of their people.

Our future will be littered with more Trumps, Grillos and Le Pens, because our welfare states – our reluctance to reform them, and our dissatisfaction with what they produce – create such fertile ground for politicians like them to thrive.

Bruno Alves is a journalist based in Portugal. He writes for O Insurgente and is an op-ed contributor to the Lisbon daily Diário Económico.