Sunday, December 2, 2012

French and American Paradoxes.

As I was reading this very interesting book: POTUS Speaks: Finding the Words that Defined the Clinton Presidency, by Michael Waldman,  on presidential speech making during the Clinton administration, I came across what seems to me a great comment on an obvious American paradox:
American voters are ideologically conservative but operationally liberal. They want their leaders to denounce government while keeping the services coming. (p.114)
This is, in my opinion, a relevant comment in this time of battle over the budget.
Because in the United States FREEDOM is the most cherished value at the core of the national identity, any issue framed in terms of interference to freedom is likely to strike a chord. That is why taxation has been such a dirty word in the United States: since Reagan it has been framed as a form of interference to your rights to keep your money. That's why a movement like the Tea Party has had so much appeal to a number of Americans. It also plays on the old idea that Big Government is bad, if not tyrannical, not unlike the British crown during the Revolution. This is all based on national founding myths which are emotionally more powerful than any reasonable argument one can make. Never mind that  those taxes provide services  that people did not have in the 18th century but want to keep today (Medicare, schools, the armed forces, etc...). This is simple math and explains why the deficit grew more during Republican administrations: cutting taxes without curbing government spending because of the impact on services that people were not ready to do without (and because of costly wars).

Nothing shows this better than natural disasters where you see Republican governors call for Federal help, even if their party platform is dead-set against the "idea" of government. I love the irony.
As Bill Clinton said it himself:
Most people are conservative most of the time. They turn to the progressive party in a time of crisis. (p.188)

To be fair, it should be noted that France also has its own inability to match its professed ideology with reality. Its mythical birth is also a revolution, and its national motto may be libertéegalité, franternité, but for reasons I will not develop here, it is the last two values - equality and bortherhood - that have been at the core of the national talk. France has one of the lowest approval rate of free-market economy.
Yet people do buy iPhones, eat at Mcdonald's, drink coffee in Starbucks and wear Nike sneakers, while demonstrating against capitalism. Indeed, capitalism thrives in France but it may be the country's greatest 'dark' secret (but only to the French). It is after all still the world's fifth largest economic power.
In other words, the French are ideologically socialists but operationally capitalists.

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