Small Government

Some observations from Switzerland that may be relevant to the ongoing talking point from some libertarian institutions that a lack of fealty to small government orthodoxy somehow did the GOP in. They have over here a party of the populist right called the Swiss People’s Party that takes a Euroskeptic, immigration restrictionist line that on economics generally favors low taxes, deregulation and stingier social services. At the same time, their main electoral base of support is among Switzerland’s highly subsidized agricultural communities. So they strongly support those subsidies. This doesn’t really “make sense” as a matter of philosophical consistency, but the political logic is clear enough — it’s a mix of issue positions designed to appeal to the interests and attitudes of rural Switzerland.

At the same time, there’s a party called the Free Democrats who follow the standard European liberal line of being pro-Europe, welcoming to immigrants, and favoring low taxes and deregulation. These guys have strong support from the Swiss business community. As a result, it has been known to “abandon its liberal values at times, e.g. by its support of import protection for medicine or of the expensive 2002 government bailout of the failing national airline, Swissair.”

Again, the philosophical logic is lacking but the political logic is very clear. A party has a basic orientation, that orientation gives it a constituency, and then a successful party is going to need to stand up for the interests of its constituency.

In the US, we have only two political parties and a much larger and more diverse country. Consequently, you don’t see as much of the systemic sectoral biases like that. Instead, what you get is that Democrats and Republicans compete vigorously across the country on a fairly consistent left-right axis, but in the states that benefit from farm subsidies everyone’s for farm subsidies while in Michigan everyone’s for auto bailouts and in Delaware everyone shills for credit card companies and so forth. But the basic principle is the same — politicians have ideologies, but they also have constituents and their constituents have interests, and to succeed in politics you’re going to have to serve those interests and that means you can’t be a really rigid ideologue. You’re never going to have a pure free market politics getting anywhere.