Our French Future?

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Via Megan, Henry Farrell scoffs at the kind of "don't let America turn into France" anxieties gestured at in my previous post:

There is something very, very strange in my eyes about this kind of argument. On the one hand. a notion of a healthy American culture of can-do entrepreneurialism, which has survived for centuries and caused America to prosper. On the other, the claim that the combination of broader-if-not-quite-universal healthcare, a slightly easier time for unions, and a return to the relatively mild form of progressive taxation we saw in the 1990s would very probably lead to the destruction of said robust culture. Something here Does Not Compute.

There's no question that the distinctively American approach to markets and government is more resilient than you'd think from reading some doomsaying conservatives these days - just as the welfare state that FDR and LBJ built is a lot more resilient than you'd have thought by reading some doomsaying liberals during the Bush years. And the broader point that Farrell goes on to make - that "national economic trajectories are quite robust," and even in crises, "advanced capitalist countries tend to tinker around the edges of their institutional systems rather than opt for wholesale reform" - is a good one, and a reason for limited-government optimism no matter what Obama's budgets look like.

That being said, the fact that America in 2050 isn't going to look exactly like France (or Denmark, to take a model that's actually closer to many liberals' beau ideal these days, I think) circa 2008 doesn't mean that conservative anxieties about the potential growth of the welfare state are just so much hyperventilating. Even absent the Obama agenda, America's "national economic trajectory" at the moment puts us on a glide path to large, large increases in the size of government, thanks to the ever-expanding cost of entitlements. At the same time, American demographics have been shifting - thanks to high levels of unskilled immigration, the decline of the two-parent family, and the broader aging of the population - in ways that tend to increase the public appetite for government spending. Obviously all of the projected entitlement-related increases won't happen - the enduring American aversion to taxation will see to that. But some of them will. And when you marry this long-term picture to a liberal agenda that seeks to take federal spending to 28 percent of GDP in the very short run, and whose promises to bring it back down to 22-23 percent of GDP are based on implausibly rosy forecasts, I don't think it's unreasonable for conservatives to envision - and fret about - a future America with a public sector that's much, much larger than it is today.

Again, Farrell's right - that future America won't really look like present-day France, once you drill down to the specifics of the programs that have expanded, the taxes that are used to pay for them, and so forth. But saying "let's not turn into France" is a form of shorthand, not a rigorous comparison of systems: It's a way of saying "let's not dramatically change the relationship between the American state and American society," at a time when both short-term politics and long-term trends make a substantial change seem possible.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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