Since When Do Conservative Pundits Love Northern European Social Democracies?

Amsterdam’s new socialistic metro line.

Photo by KOEN SUYK/AFP/Getty Images

Jon Chait notes the contrast in today’s New York Times between the “familiar conservative morality tale” offered by David Brooks, extremely astute observer of human foibles, about the European economic situation and the actual economic analysis offered by Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. But beyond the specifics of the diagnosis, what’s striking to me is this odd scenario in which conservatives have suddenly become big admirers of Northern European social democracies. Brooks gets gooey about how Germany and the Netherlands have “have played by the rules and practiced good governance … lived within their means, undertaken painful reforms, enhanced their competitiveness and reinforced good values.” That’s all totally true, whether or not you think it constitutes the key root of the crisis (compare Sweden to Finland and you’ll see it’s not). But note that for the United States to live within its means in the way that Germany and the Netherlands have would be to increase taxes, cut defense spending, institute health care price controls, and make social welfare benefits more generous. I was at an event this morning with Joschka Fischer (about which more later), Vice Chancellor during the period of Germany’s “painful reforms” and I can assure you that while he’s proud of the Red-Green coalition’s efforts to bolster German competitiveness he is not a huge fan of American rightwingers.

It is, of course, American liberals who’ve spent years – decades, even! – talking admiringly about the northern European social model. And most of us still admire it. But what aspects of it do the American right admire? It doesn’t seem to be the budgetary priorities, so maybe it’s the way putting labor union representatives on corporate boards of directors seems to help inspire a less conflict-oriented approach to wage-setting?

To be clear, I don’t think we’re looking at hypocrisy exactly. Instead it goes back to the preference for morality tales. Whoever is up at the moment must be up because of their greater moral virtues. I seem to have somehow missed the conservative articles lauding Germany and the Netherlands from back four or five years ago. Instead at the time I was reading lots of stories about the triumph of the Celtic Tiger, the genius of the flat tax in the Baltic states, articles praising Silvio Berlusconi and so forth. Certainly at no point during the Bush administration was there a lot of talk in the right-wing press about the evils of household debt, the overwhelming merits of current account surpluses, or any of the rest of it.