The re-election of Barack Obama is one more battle in the long war that the left and the right have been waging for three decades, over the role of the state. In duration and geography, and intensity, it calls to mind the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648. Then the conflict was about territory, religion and dynastic succession. Nowadays the battle is about rather more post-modern issues: the limits of the state and the market, the tension between freedom and equality, and the setting of frontiers not between territories, but between social classes.
This 30-year pseudo-war, in the analogy drawn by Bill Clinton to dramatize the virulence it is attaining in the US, began with the victories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in 1979 and 1980, a turning point in the view of the state. While, until then, both American conservatives and European social democrats not too uncomfortably combined a preference for the market economy with the existence of a state capable of providing security and social cohesion, from that time on an important part of the right began to attack the state, having developed an animosity toward it, blaming it for the crisis of the 1970s.
The animosity rested on a double argument: that of economic efficacy, the state being seen as an obstacle to growth, not as a facilitator; and that of political legitimacy, the state being seen as an intruder in individual rights, not as a guarantor of the same. Hence the constant pressure to shrink the state and its structures for redistribution of income and opportunity.
Oddly enough, the right’s aversion to the state coincided with the left’s discovery of the market as an instrument for opportunities and social progress. Thus, while progressive forces (Democrats in the United States, social-democrats in Europe) accepted a balance between state and market, assigning to the state the role of redistributor, but not of producer, and to the market that of generating growth while curbing its tendency to inequity, the conservative forces (Republicans in the US, liberals in Europe) worked tirelessly to reduce the size of the state, limiting its redistributive role and neglecting social policies in the belief, repeated time and again, that the creation of employment was the best, even the only way toward a cohesive, equal-opportunity society.
The result is that, while most of the left have put their anti-market thought behind them, an important sector of the right believe in a liberalism that is limited almost exclusively to the economic sense of the word — that is, extreme economic liberty and a minimal role for the state — but not in the political sense. As we have seen in the American campaign, but also observe in Europe, the right is liberal in the economic sense, but notably conservative in questions related to personal liberty (abortion, homosexual marriage, legalization of drugs, etc.). However, in showing complete indifference to the growing inequalities between social classes, especially between the richest and the poorest, the liberals show they are not liberal in the political sense, because liberal political thought has always held that democracy — in that it presupposes and requires citizens equal in rights and capacities — is incompatible with gross social inequalities in the long term.
In the United States, from 1945 when World War II ended, until 1980 when Ronald Reagan came to power, the differences in income between the richest 10 percent and the rest of society remained stable, but since then they have kept increasing, and now stand at levels comparable to those of the Great Depression. In last Tuesday’s battle, the latest in this 30 years’ war, the victory has gone to those who believe that a redistributive state does not threaten liberty, but protects it. Chalk one up for Obama.
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