Clinton and Blair: What's Left?

articles
Oct. 4 1996 3:30 AM

Clinton and Blair: What's Left?

The American president and the next British prime minister are strikingly alike: They are both conservatives in denial.

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There is little substance in any of this. Yes, the world has changed. It keeps doing that. But only in small respects have developments in technology and the global economy narrowed choices over policy. What really has changed is that many voters in many countries have decided that traditional left-of-center policies (e.g., higher taxes, more generous provisions for the poor) are not what they want. Many also wish to be spared any guilt that might arise on that account--which is why Clinton and Blair are on to such a good thing with, "We'd love to do that, but it's no longer feasible." What about new politics, transcended categories, and all that? In the future, Clinton and Blair say, false oppositions between competition and compassion, efficiency and equity, will be resolved. That would be good, but how is it to be done? Simply by saying, again and again, "We must have competition with compassion, efficiency with equity." If only this had been understood before, we could all have become conservatives much sooner.

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The clearest proof of the new left's poverty is what Clinton and Blair have to say about the "middle class." In both Britain and America, the term covers nearly everybody. In the age of possibility that beckons, one thing that apparently will not be possible is a policy that imposes a fiscal burden on this group. Not content to rule out policies (however worthy) that impose a cost on most taxpayers, Clinton and Blair often go further, saying that their main fiscal goal is to improve the position of the middle class. Since "the rich" are a tiny proportion of taxpayers, the only thing this could mean in practice would be an improvement relative to the position of the poor--an extraordinary idea for supposedly left-of-center leaders, however modern or forward-looking, to adopt.

Any party expecting its program to be taken seriously as a left-of-center alternative to conservatism must surely propose one of two things: Either it must promise to increase in the aggregate the quantity and quality of public services (and the taxes needed to pay for them), or else it must promise, within an unchanged total of taxes and spending, to redirect the flow of resources so that the less well-off get more. In either case, stripped to its essentials, a left-of-center program seeks to help the less prosperous at the expense of everybody else (i.e., at the expense of the middle class).

It may well be, as conservatives would argue, that policies of this kind are a bad idea for one reason or another. Perhaps they would fail. Conceivably, they would fail so badly that they would even make the intended beneficiaries worse off. This is exactly the argument that the left should be having with the right, just as in the old days. For the moment, most strikingly in America and Britain, the left has simply capitulated. In order to win power, it promises to make no difference. Clinton and Blair won't do anything a conservative wouldn't. But at least they care.

Clive Crook is deputy editor of the Economist.

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