I have long believed that we are living in an age of conservative social democracy where both major parties are roughly happy with our current size of government. It appears that this thesis is picking up supporters all over the shop — including Mark Bahnisch, Andrew Norton & John Quiggin.
I see the 20th century as the “century of the state”, where the angloworld moved from liberal (ie moderate libertarian) democracy to social democracy. At the beginning of the 20th century tax made up under 10% of GDP. Now it is about 40% in the anglosphere. The social democrats have won. We are now living in the wet dream of the fabian socialists of 100 years ago. We are living in the world of Whitlam/Labor and Howard/Liberals are defending it.
Some commentators point to the supposed “neo-liberal” revolution of the 1980s as evidence that the tide has turned. Thatcher (UK), Raegan (US), Hawke/Keating (Aus), Roger Douglas (NZ). Unfortunately, none of these people have successfully wound back the size of government. What they have done is stopped the growth of government. The “neo-liberal” revolution wasn’t liberal at all… it just marked the end of the growth of government.
During most of the 20th century there have been political marriages of convenience between the conservatives/liberal democrats (as conservatives wanted to conservate liberal democracy) and also between the socialists/social democats (as they both wanted reform towards bigger government). But both of these unions are now falling apart.
It no longer makes sense for liberal democrats to tie their flag to the conservative vote-getting engine. Conservatives have stayed trued to their name (and lack of real political philosophy) by now defending the new statist quo of social democracy. True liberals don’t want to conserve much about the current system. We want big change and smaller government.
And it no longer makes sense for socialists to tie their flag to the social democrat Labor-machine. Mainstream Labor isn’t going to move any further left, so if the socialists want to drag us further towards Havana, they’re going to have to do it without their more popular & moderate ex-comrades.
Unfortunately in Australia, while liberal democrats have so far largely failed to organise outside the Liberals the socialists have found an effective new vehicle to push their argument for even bigger government — the Greens. We can only hope that the Liberal Democratic Party can one day immitate their success.
But while the conservatives and social democrats move away from their ex-partners they are increasing moving towards each other. Howard defends Whitlam’s welfare systems and is the highest taxing/spending PM in Australia. Bush is the highest spending Pres in the US. New Labor in the UK outflanked the Tories on the right, and now the Tories under Cameron are trying to outflank New Labor on the left. Thatcher & Raegan may have been from the right, but Hawke and Roger Douglas were from the left. Modern political differences are about cultural issues or minor differences made to look big on TV.
The big question is what happens next? I prefer liberal democracy, but I am happy to admit that social democracy is a good system. Certainly better than environmental socialism (Greens), national socialism (One Nation) or any other alternative floating around in politics today. I think the current system can be successful for quite a while… and while it is successful then people will be happy to let the mediocre similarity of the major parties bore them to indifference.
But I fear that social democracy may face problems some day. It promises all things to all people and provides half to each. It encourages bureaucracy and government dependency. It lacks the flexibility of liberal democracy and instead insists that the government should fix everybodys problem. But it can’t. If/when there is some sort of external trigger, will people reject social democracy, and if so then what alternative philosophy will they turn to?