The Success Curse

Why statism may never die in the two oldest democracies


"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it."
—Winston Churchill

On Christmas night I found myself in the Bourbon Chapel of the medieval St. Jean Cathedral in Lyon, admiring L'Adoration des Mages, a beautiful painting of the Magi and others coming to pay awed tribute to the newborn baby Jesus.

"Is that story true?" I asked my father-in-law. "Did people come from all around to see an unknown infant?"

I knew his answer would be interesting since, in addition to being a devout Catholic (he once told me that Christianity has been the "biggest source of freedom in human history"), and a believer of the Gospels as gospel, he's also a professor of Roman history, specializing in the time of Christ.

"No, no, no," he replied. "It's poetry."

Hundreds of millions of people around the world have just finished celebrating and propagating a story described by even some of its biggest fans as revisionist history written by the victors. For the scientifically conscious faithful, this widely held literal belief in fiction is a mild price to pay for the greater truths of Christ's teachings. For the rest of us, it's a cautionary reminder that there are plenty who not only believe that "God created everything in six 24 hour days," but who want to teach such mythology as fact in our public schools.

Christianity's enduring myths also, I think, teach us an important lesson about modern geopolitics, one having nothing to do with the Red Heifer of the Apocalypse. Like the world's great religions, history's most successful countries—whether led by Bourbon or Bush—create cottage industries of competing explanations that cancel each other out, and mythologies that can't possibly be true. And as long as they continue to prosper, there won't be much structural incentive to fix their obvious flaws.

France and the United States, the world's two oldest and longest-bickering democracies, both suffer in their own ways from this curse of success. And until either experiences some kind of catastrophic collapse——a real one, as opposed to the perennial nonfiction predictions—the forces of statism in both countries will maintain the upper hand.

In France, the three most obscene policies from a libertarian point of view are probably the country's poverty-enhancing agricultural subsidies, its ridiculously generous welfare state, and its confiscatory taxation and regulation, all of which contribute to a stifling of domestic entrepreneurship, a multi-decade economic crisis, and a stiff stench of societal malaise.

Yet any argument against these unproductive government intrusions has to overcome three powerful rebuttals: French farming yields the most delicious food and wine on the planet; its health care system (in sharp contrast to the UK's) is a glittering advertisement for socialized medicine; and its public sector is the G8's most productive.

Small wonder that American-style economic neo-liberalism is misportrayed here as "savage capitalism"—compared to the affordable cost and superior quality of health care my wife receives when in France, "savage" is an understatement as a description of her experience with American medicine. Then again, the malaise-inspired dreariness and social immobility that comes as a consequence of the non-productive aspects of L'Etat have plenty to do with why she hasn't lived here for a decade.

The U.S. faces a similar obstacle in the Sisyphean battle against statism. Ninth Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski, libertarianism's Great Romanian Hope for the judicial branch, actually signed his name recently to an elaboration of one of the main reasons why limited government as a political project is nearly DOA in America:

While I have a romantic attachment to this vision, I'm far from convinced that it would achieve the goals set for it—that we'd be living in a better world today if only we repudiated the New Deal, or had never adopted it in the first place. Whenever I try to imagine what such a world would look like, I look at the world we do live in and recognize that we don't have it so bad at all. We have the world's strongest economy by far; we are the only superpower, having managed to bury the Evil Empire; and we have more freedom than any other people anytime in history. We must be doing something right.

While heartening on one hand, this formulation contains a germ of an idea ominously familiar to those who follow the fates of sporting franchises or the histories of empires: There's a thin, dangerous line between "we must be doing something right" and "we must not be doing anything wrong." Or more relevantly, between that and "we may be doing some things wrong, but that doesn't matter, because we're doing The One Important Thing right enough."

That latter mind-set led Goldwaterites down the rabbit-hole of Nixonian statism, just as the children of the Gingrich Revolution have grown up to become fluffers for the Executive Branch. Both cases, of course, also illustrate the miraculous change that occurs in some people when their political team holds the reins of power.

So does success inevitably breed ugly compromises, false mythology, and an unwillingness to make necessary changes? Let me interrupt this Grinchian crankiness with some sunny neo-Kozinskism: Truly we must be doing something right.

As any good Jesuit could tell you, the power of myth can sometimes be more important, more materially helpful, than the cold, harsh glare of truth. And arguably the two greatest myths in geopolitical history are "All men are created equal," and Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Along with separating church from state, and organizing countries around ideas instead of nationalities, these two foundational legends have been passed down as DNA inside the blood cells of most Americans and Frenchmen; North Stars from which to re-align their ships of state.

Speaking for the country that issued my passport, no matter how temporally successful the United States is (and therefore how cursed efforts to improve it will be), somewhere deep down those founding myths keep whispering to our bones that we can do much better. It might not be enough to prevent President Bush from spending like LBJ while waging a twilight struggle like Nixon, but it's reason for hope in 2006.

Associate Editor Matt Welch is based in Los Angeles. His work is archived at mattwelch.com, where he also blogs.