The Wrong Ideals

The problem with the Left in America is that they are more European than American. Paraphrasing Dennis Prager, they subscribe more to the French Revolution (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”) than to those of the American Revolution (“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”) The more you think about it, the more you realize that this is the true fundamental divide in American politics.


Author: David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.

13 thoughts on “The Wrong Ideals”

  1. I think you’re right, David, that we liberals subscribe more to the French revolution ideals. However, we Americans pursue mostly money, not happiness. The pursuit of happiness itself is a rather fruitless and elusive pursuit. We’d all be better off pursuing equality and fraternity.

    1. John, I, for one, have lived my life in the pursuit of happiness, doing what I was passionate about, and finding ways to share it with friends, family, and total strangers. Money to feed and house my family tended to come with that, but it was never the goal. I would be surprised as hell to discover that I was alone in this circumstance. I do not think the pursuit of happiness is fruitless and elusive, but that it is about a fulfilling journey rather than a static destination, hence the right to pursue happiness rather than attain it.

      As to whether we would all be better off pursuing equality and fraternity, I’d say the jury is still out, particularly in France.

      1. Well spoken. I think what one means by the pursuit of happiness is a philosophical question, or maybe of definition. I think happiness doesn’t often yield to direct pursuit, which is pretty much what you said. As for equality and fraternity in France, why, whatever do you mean?

  2. The problem with the Right in America is that they think there’s a single political axis with “European” (read: dreaded socialism, limp wristed cheese eating) at one end, and “American” (read: the not-really-free market, manly steak eating) at the other.

    In fact there are at least two axes: one social, the other economic. And on both axes, American is far, far to the right. Both parties are extremely authoritarian (as compared to libertarian on social issues) and extremely favoring capital (as compared to the workers on economic issues).

    But you were talking about “the pursuit of happiness”, David.

    So we have to ask: which political party in the United States at the moment is most aligned with individuals seeking their own happiness? And the answer, inevitably, is the Democrats. America’s slightly-less-far-right party.

    “Happiness” for main-stream Republicans (let’s leave the loony right out of it, even though they seem to have captured the GOP and are holding it hostage, and even though they make my argument here a slam dunk) seems to mean a very limited view of what “family” means, a very limited view of what “work” means, historical blindness to the importance of creativity rather than conformity in maximizing happiness, and an extremely odd and anti-historical perception that humans “seek happiness” best alone, rather than in groups.

    In fact, it is only in “left as in socially libertarian” parties around the globe that we even find any acknowledgement at all that happiness might mean different things to you than it does to me.

    So if “pursuit of happiness” is really what you’re after, and you really believe this is the “true fundamental divide”, then you’re batting for the wrong team.

    1. Shannon, if you care to paint classical liberalism as a “far, far right” ethos, all I can say is that you and I do not share the same political spectrum. You and I are in agreement on the failings of the reactionary right in US politics, and I think the social agenda belongs on the pulpit and not in the state house. But if you want to convince me that the road to happiness is paved with the tar of economic equality, I would challenge you to come up with convincing evidence that such an approach was both viable and sustainable.

      1. Except that the US doesn’t practice “classical liberalism”, David! So your assertion that I’m “painting” that as anything is a little bit of a straw man.Classical liberalism is, simply, non-protectionism, which doesn’t resemble the current US economic order in anything but the most superficial sense. The US is, in fact, radically protectionist in both the classical and the modern sense. And worse, it’s an utterly bipartisan effort. Reinforcing my comments above. On economic issues, the two main parties are verging on indistinguishable.

        As for “convincing evidence” that the road to happiness is often underpinned with equality, that’s trivial to supply. Start here:

      2. Shannon, I am not sure what textbook you are reading, but in those that I have here, classical liberalism is, essentially, an ethos under which government takes a “least possible governance” approach to both economics and social policy. In the US, we have one party that has traditionally espoused minimal government interference in commerce, and one that has espoused minimal interference in society, but in general I would say that the fundamental US ethos is classical liberalism, with American characteristics.

        As far as the US being protectionist, by what measure, sir? This is the nation that led the charge on the Bretton Woods system that gave birth to GATT and the WTO, that passed NAFTA, and that propels the TPP. Do we offer perfect free trade? No. But get real.

        The study you quote on CNN is from the Earth Institute. I no more trust them to assess issues of political or economic happiness than I would trust the Roper Organization to discern trends in global climate change.

      3. Also, note how the fundamental economic health of (almost but not all) of the countries in the 16 slots above the US is in fact better than the US. So “sustainable” seems to also be a claim you can make for equality.

  3. Depends how far back you go, David! You used the word “classical”, so I assumed you were talking about economics, Adam Smith, and the alternative to the evils of mercantilism. But now you seem not to be talking about economics alone, but rather the cluster of ideological beliefs centered around so-called limited government that includes the belief in laissez-faire as a cure-all. Again, putting everything on the single axis is (as I’ve tried to illustrate) limited, and an almost exclusively American disease.

    The US is in favor of free trade only when it benefits the US. Which is not bad per se, but the history of Bretton Woods (etc.) is a fascinating and multi-dimensional one which includes the US hobbling or otherwise demanding absolute control and veto over things that were intended to be part and parcel of that series of proposals, like international clearing houses, and World Banks that aren’t simply adjuncts to US foreign policy. So I’d ask that you “get real” and assess the US commitment to free trade from even a moderately non-partisan POV, please! Cough-farmbills-cough. In this discussion I have the luxury of not being a labelled Republican or Democrat — and in fact I describe myself as a pragmatist. I’m interesting in pursuing economic (etc.) policies *that work*, not to retrofitting history to fit an preselected economic theory.

    I’m not interested, in other words, in subscribing to an ideology (e.g. “classical liberalism” in its broader sense) and then filtering the data to fit my ideology.

    I’m not saying this is what you are doing — I think you’re too intellectually honest for that — but when you do things like dismiss the World Happiness Report because it “comes from the Earth Institute”, totally ignoring the fact that the LSE was a co-author (hardly a bastion of pinko liberals!) then I have to question what drives you to dismiss that data.

    *Especially* when it’s an unquestionable fact that several “more socialist” economies are outdoing the US, and have been doing so for long enough that the sustainability argument appears moot.

    1. Shannon, apologies for my lack of clarity. I came under the nefarious influence of political economists at university, so I understand classical liberalism as a term of political economy rather than just pure economics: Smith, for sure, but also Locke, Say, Malthus, Ricardo, Tocqueville, and Hayek. And please understand that I’m not married to a particular ideology – I am trying to find a constructive way to frame the ideological underpinnings of the Republic, as I do not see them as being quite as reactionary as you do.

      The US has had a mixed record on free trade since 1945, but deviations from the broader direction of opening were a reflection of practical necessity rather than ideological commitment. Yes, some lame justifications have been used to protect local industries, but the European efforts to defend the Common Agricultural Policy (to protect inefficent French farmers), the cultural exemption to the GATT and the WTO (to save Francoise Truffaut), and the EU’s insistence on subsidizing champions suggest that those economies are no more committed to free trade – and arguably are less so – than the US. You must admit that overall, the direction has been toward freer and more open trade.

      I was a little too quick and flip to dismiss the World Happiness Report on such a superficial basis, I’ll admit. Yet I maintain there are reasons beyond provenance to be skeptical of the WHR’s findings. I am not convinced about the report’s twin conceits that a) happiness can be measured objectively, and b) Sachs et. al. have hit upon how to do that. Until we have seen this study in action over some time, I am not ready to concede that it measures anything that correlates to economic success.

      On your argument that “more socialst” economies are outdoing the US and have done so for “long enough,” what measure are you using, and for what time period?

      1. GDP/debt. Growth. Current Accounts Deficit. Efficiency. Recovery time from 2007. — in other words all the usual measures. It’s (IMO) meaningless to point to Greece as example of all the bad things about “Europe” without also pointing to Germany and the Nordics. It’s also amusing to watch Greece being used as an example for everyone’s pet economic theory, when the core problem was/is Greece’s ineffective tax regime. It’s also amusing to me that (as one example of a slightly different point) the economies which applied well-targeted Keynesian stimulus came out well, those who applied “austerity” are still waiting for the turnaround that the monetarists keep assuring us will come any day now, and that economies (like the US) which applied heroically badly targeted stimulus and not enough are still slogging through tough times. To me the evidence for “what works” is clear.

        But back to the topic…

        I agree with most of your comment above. I strongly feel that free trade is better than the alternatives. I feel strongly that markets work when there is effective competition. I don’t feel that free markets, left entirely to themselves, create trade or competition in the long run. There is simply too much incentive for temporary “winners” to try and “lock in” their positions.

        Too much égalité, in other words, is just as bad as none at all.

      2. Greece’s problem was both an ineffective tax regime AND runaway spending. And when you point to Germany and the Nordics as examples of European success, you are hardly tipping a hat to socialism. Germany’s miracle is the result of a strong core of innovative mid-sized businesses, an education system that doesn’t even pretend that university is for everyone, collaboration between labor and management, and fiscal policies that involved tax cuts for people who had a job but found it difficult to make ends meet (rather than a pumped-up welfare state.) And the Nordics? They dumped socialism two decades ago when tax-and-spend sent the region into the doldrums. Pragmatism, not socialism, reigns in the land of Ikea and Nokia.

  4. I completely agree. The last sentence of that Economist article is particularly telling: “[for success] you must be ready to abandon tired orthodoxies of the left and right and forage for good ideas across the political spectrum. The world will be studying the Nordic model for years to come.”

    Ahem. That’s everything in my first 3 posts above in a single sentence!

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