A Diet of Small Ideas Starves Political Debate

WILLIAM PFAFF

April 16, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- In a letter to a press agency in Bonn, Germany's Red Army Faction has announced its suspension of terrorist attacks. The most recent of those was a year ago, when the German terrorists murdered the head of the agency in charge of dismantling the moribund East German economy and selling its parts off to private buyers. The collapse of East Germany had deprived the Red Army Faction of its operational base, but it was still capable of lethal operations. Now the terrorists' message suggests that they will bargain for an amnesty.

It seems a long way from that to the formation of a new Cabinet in London this week, but the connection is not as remote as one might think. The newly re-elected British prime minister, John Major, has installed the formidable Margaret Thatcher's detested enemy -- and challenger, cause of her downfall -- Michael Heseltine as minister of trade and industry. Mr. Heseltine is an enthusiastic European who wants Britain's industry to cooperate with Europe rather than the U.S. He also believes in interventionist state industrial policy.

Two ideologies have come to the end of the road. Let us call ideology a matter of ideas acted upon with passion, even violence. The romantic terrorists of Italy and Germany thought they were confronting their societies with the internal ''contradictions'' of capitalism. They seized the political initiative their countries, even though they actually strengthened liberal institutions by forcing the public to set a value upon these.

Thatcherism and Reaganism -- the revival of free-market

economics in the governments of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan -- were greatly influenced by the theorists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman and turned into something like a crusade. The specific political character of Reaganism was to hold government itself responsible for society's ills and refuse to fund it or respect it. This, unlike market economics, was not a success, having brought the United States to its present unhappy state.

Ideas count. In the late 1940s and 1950s, ideas of liberal internationalism and collective security greatly changed the U.S. and as a result, Europe and Japan). These were reactions to the political beliefs of the pre-war period, when the challenge was from totalitarian ideas.

The New Deal in America may have been an affair of improvised innovations, but it developed within a general ideology of the state's responsibility for society's well-being that was a novelty then in the United States and bitterly debated for years afterward.

Today a striking lack of political ideas, and of debate about ideas, characterizes politics both in Western Europe and the U.S. What great ideas distinguish Bill Clinton from George Bush? Programs keep them apart, specific proposals on tax, educational reform, military budget reductions, etc. Nowhere in the American presidential debate is there a contested idea that would have serious public consequences if it were put into action.

The elections in Italy, Germany and France saw incumbent parties punished for lethargy, corruption, failure to solve unemployment or control immigration, etc. However, the ideological content of these electoral campaigns was virtually nil. People voted for extremists, marginals, outsiders, because of their discontent with the insiders.

The difference in Britain's election was that the ideas of Thatcherism and socialism still had a role, if a paradoxical one. What defeated the Labor Party was that while the Tories under Mr. Major had distanced themselves from Thatcherism, Labor still had not escaped the shadow of a socialism that had come to represent social injustice, rather than justice, to a majority of voters.

Elsewhere, the big debates seem provisionally ended. The idea of the social-market economy -- welfare capitalism -- is an uncontroversial success in Germany, and is the direction in which the rest of Western Europe seems headed. The quarrels are programmatic -- or personal. The social priorities seem to have been set.

Yet Americans should be disquieted by all this. The problems faced by the other democracies today all are secondary ones, in principle capable of solution with the means at hand. The ideas by which the British, French, Italian and German governments function are sufficient to the problems they face. This is not the case for the United States.

America is the country really in need of ideas and fundamental debate. It is the country with economic problems it seems unable even to address, much less solve -- the leadership of both parties content with partisan stalemate, and business and industry obsessed with sectoral interests. The social and racial divisions in American society are perhaps worse than they have ever been. The ship drifts; the bands play.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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