The Teutonic Turn

In the midst of an economic downturn, German voters go libertarian


Listening to the media heavy breathers—a bipartisan group ranging from Gore Vidal to Glenn Beck—one gets the distinct impression that our democracy has become flabby and distracted, trundling toward a socialist (to be used interchangeably with communist or Tsarist) or fascist (to be used interchangeably with Nazi) future. For every absurdity emanating from the Bush White House, there existed a blogger, pundit, or politician ready to compare it to the "Night of the Long Knives"; every power grab from the Obamaites foreshadows an American Lubyanka.

In the United States, such nonsense could be corrected without the aid of turgid academic books explaining late 19th century revolutionary movements in Imperial Russia or the collapse of Weimar democracy. The comparisons would be embarrassing to anyone who has watched films such as The Lives of Others, Katyn, or The Soviet Story. (Hollywood, incidentally, has yet to produce more than a handful decent anti-communist films; we have ceded this responsibility to those who actually suffered under the Soviet boot heel.)

I often wonder what the Germans think of these media-induced Nazi-Red panics. It is, after all, the country that perfected the most genocidal form of fascism, only to be replaced, in half of the country, with the brutal Moscow-directed (but distinctly indigenous) form of East German communism. In a country that can be accused of periodically backsliding into old ideological habits (specifically, a rose-colored view of its recent communist past), the hyperventilating politician warning of resurgent fascism or communism is rare.  

In last week's Bundestag elections, the Left Party, heir to the East German state communist party and still stocked with representatives of the old dictatorship, managed an impressive 12 percent of the vote. Distressing, say pundits inhabiting the sensible enclaves of the German left, but nothing to get too alarmed about. Indeed, despite the current global economic downturn, which countless American pundits suggested would be a boon for European socialist parties, it is now a coalition of Angela Merkel's right-of-center Christian Democrats (CDU) and Guido Westerwelle's libertarian-leaning Free Democrats (FDP) running the show in Berlin. The Social Democrats—utterly bereft of new ideas—suffered their greatest defeat since the Weimar Republic.

Our comrades on the American left, beating the drum for a type of social democracy in retreat across Europe, insist that this is nothing to worry about. At the popular left-wing blog Obsidian Wings, readers are informed that "Merkel's coalition would be considered fairly liberal Democrats on America's political spectrum." Blogger Matt Yglesias declares that his are "right-of-center views relative to German politics," but also writes that by voting for the FDP/CDU coalition, voters in Germany could be diagnosed as suffering from false consciousness by "underestimating the extent of the economic problems it's facing." In The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg explained that German conservatives weren't at all like the troglodyte American variety—German conservatives all support the welfare state and are rather civilized when it comes to social policy.

Well, not exactly. On the continuum of ideology, the German right is surely less conservative than the American right. But the Western European right has successfully chipped away at the welfare state in the last 25 years, with every country lowering tax rates, deregulating labor markets, and forcing the privatization of state companies. The story of the welfare state in the past quarter century is one of contraction, not expansion.

So what to make of Westerwelle, Germany's new foreign minister and influential coalition partner?

The Daily Telegraph called him an "arch-Thatcherite," a politician who recently declared that the deeply entrenched German labor unions are a "plague on our country." The Independent grumbled that he was "a man obsesssed with tax cuts," excoriating the German welfare safety net as "pay for laziness." Westerwelle told supporters that "there is no such thing as democratic socialism; it's like talking about a vegetarian abattoir." Der Spiegel succinctly described the FDP's politics as advocating "open markets, less stringent hiring and firing rules, an effective competition policy, help for small enterprises and, most importantly, lower and simpler taxes."

But American liberals want you to know that, because Westerwelle is openly gay and the CDU (but not its Bavarian partner, the CSU) have gradually toned down the social conservatism, victories for the European right are much the same as victories for mainstream American liberalism.

Yet this is a narrow definition of what it means to be "of the right" in Western Europe. Of course, most of the right-wing parties in Germany accept the existence of the welfare state—it is popular; once people start receiving benefits, like long state-mandated vacations, it is difficult to take them away—though most privately wish for even greater cuts. (There is a reason that one always finds young members of Swedish, English, Norwegian, and German right-wing parties in Washington, DC, attending training seminars put on by conservative groups like the Leadership Institute.) Nor would I expect Yglesias, Hertzberg, and other American liberals to deem Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, a fellow traveler for his embrace of the so-called conservative welfare state.

And what about Germany's far right parties? Do American liberals accpet them as fundamentally liberal "in an American context"? Set aside the semi-literate grumblings about the mongrelization of the fatherland; parties of the extreme right in Europe are almost uniformly in love with the welfare state, dubious of free markets, and fanatically opposed to American foreign policy. Indeed, a look through the suggested reading page on the website of Junge Freiheit, a far-right newspaper popular with the NPD crowd, one will find books by Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, and Chalmers Johnson.

But there is much more to Germany's rightward swing than economics. In a paper reprinted in Der Spiegel, American liberal academics Matt Browne, Ruy Teixiera, and John Halpin offered a bland diagnosis of what ails European social democracy and provided this bafflingly vague remedy: "If social democratic parties are to recover, then they must move to a new phase of progressive governance."

Curiously missing from their account of the SPD collapse—and missing from most liberal analyses—is any mention of immigration, a subject constantly raised in private conversation but approached with extreme caution by mainstream parties. (On a trip to Europe last month, I witnessed countless discussions about immigration policy and heard frequent mentions of Christopher Caldwell's controversial new book on Muslim immigration.) Social democratic parties in Western Europe are widely seen as unserious on immigration, offering platitudes about the benefits of multicultural society instead of addressing the growing problems of the urban immigrant underclass. A 2006 poll in Germany found that a staggering 60 percent of respondents thought Islam was "incompatible with Western democracy."

Or consider the case of Wolfgang Clement, a Social Democrat who served as former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's economy minister. In an advertisement in the right-leaning tabloid Bild, Clement announced that he was voting for Westerwelle's Free Democrats—a rejection of the economic populism of the German left. It is doubtless a concern of moderate German voters that the SPD will, in the interest of survival, drop their long-standing resistance to working with the extremists in the post-communist Left Party.

Now that she has been liberated from her "grand coalition" with the opposition socialists, Merkel, and her new ally Westerwelle, have a chance to rein in powerful labor unions, slash punitive taxes on both individuals and businesses, and deregulate an overregulated labor market. If American fans of European social democracy believe this is in line with their own agenda, we should welcome them to the libertarian side.

Michael Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine.

NEXT: Christina Romer: Our War On the U.S. Economy Must Continue

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  1. Now, hopefully with this new Conservative/Libertarian alliance in power does that mean the Germans will defend themselves and not rely on us?

  2. There are libertarians in Germany???

    Will wonders never cease . . .

    (The left must call them fascists, surely . . .)

    1. Actually, if you call someone a fascist in Germany, they can some after you legally… The only Libertarian I met in Germany was an Amaerican expatriot. There just isn’t that much in common philosophically. The Free Democrats are somewhat close to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, but the beliefs behind their positons are often not what one would expect…

      1. I’m interested in details, rbuchanan. (I’d’ve never asked Qs like this in the old linear, non-tree format.) Are they the sorts of position combinations that tend to come about as a result of the need to ally with interest groups A, B, C, etc. in order to get support for policies X, Y, Z, etc.?

        Like for instance the way in the early USA the libertarian interest was mostly the agrarian interest, which put libertarians in bed with slave holders? Some libertarians from Denmark 20+ yrs. ago explained to us how the only sizable libertarian political party there was (IIRC) their Free Democrats, who were also the friends of the farmers, which caused their libertarian policies to be mixed with agricultural protectionism. So with the German Free Democrats, is it that sort of thing — the result of logrolling to get the support they need to be effective?

        1. (I lived in Germany for two years; I’m not an expert on the system, but this is my lay knowledge)

          FDP = Yellow
          CDU/CSU = Black
          SPD = Red

          It’s not really a question of allying themselves with interests; the FDP has typically hovered around 10% of the vote and parliament since the end of the war, and IIRC has been part of the every coalition government except for grand coalitions in the early 60s and today, and the long Red/Green period under Schr?der. Libertarians are rare in Germany; the FDP would be better identified as classical liberals than anything else; they don’t really identify with the drug legalization and are (in practice, at least) less adamant about defending civil liberties than economic ones, while espousing a strong belief in both. They didn’t really fight smoking bans as much as they could have.

          They have the motto of “as much state as necessary, as little state as possible.”

          Hope that helps.

  3. …the story of the welfare state in the past quarter century is one of contraction, not expansion.

    Except in the US.

  4. The Free Democratic Party has long been the most successful pro-freedom party in Europe. They do accept much of the German welfare state, but in this election promoted a simplified tax structure with lower rates, and called for de-regulation.

    Specifically, the FDP wants to repeal the law that requires 6 months severance pay if you let go of an employee. This means that companies are hesitant to hire new employees, and contract out manufacturing, often to foreign companies.

    The Young Liberals – youth section of the FDP – promote legalization of Cannabis and orhter social liberal positions, and are likely to continue to push the FDP in a more libertarian direction.

  5. If the Bush administration is any indication, the right having total control does not bode well for libertarianism in Germany. I’m hoping that the FDP influence is more positive than I’m expecting.

  6. This is the same coalition that ruled through much of the 80’s and 90’s, only with a rather stronger FDP this time around. I wouldn’t expect many grand changes but who knows.

  7. So when Republicans in the US hold Libertarian positions they remain “statist” but when Germans tilt slightly toward Liberty they magically become “Libertarian”?

    Did Bush cut taxes? It doesn’t matter when a Republican does something Libertarian, if it doesn’t bring total Libertopia it just doesn’t count? When the “right” in Germany, which is well to the Left of the American center, mentions some more conservative positions on taxes (remember they haven’t DONE anything yet) they are Libertarians?

    It must be tough having to hold the position that there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats. The contortions performed by the authors of this site remain an amusing exercise in self-denial. Why not, the LP nominated fucking Bob Barr for President. He had held Libertarian positions, supposedly, for what, several minutes? And in which party did Ron Paul run for President again?

    Since Barak Obama may have mentioned cutting taxes before the election does this mean he is a Libertarian?

    1. Did Bush cut taxes?

      No. He might have delayed collecting some of them, but by increasing spending he raised taxes.

    2. What did Bush do that was libertarian? New entitlements? New debt? New regulations? New subsidies?

      None of that is libertarian.

  8. Marshall @ 6:32: Libertarians all applaud Bush’s tax cuts. We oppose many other things Bush did: the Iraq War, No Child Left Behind, the Prescription Drug Benefit, the Patriot Act etc.

    The German Free Democrats support civil liberties in a way that American Republicans tend to oppose. And the German FDP wants to bring German troops home from Afghanistan/

    If a Republican sides with Libertarians on the war and civil liberties, as well as the free market, of course we applaud him. Just don’t have much opportunity to do so.

    1. Some caveats:

      – On the Iraq war: this was not Bush’s invention, and the blame for it is completely shared. It’s impossible to know what shape Al Qaeda and related organizations would be in had we not gone to Iraq, but one thing I will credit Bush for is staying the course. You can’t keep going to war and then pulling back.
      – NCLB and PDB, no arguments. This was the detritus of a ‘compassionate Conservative’, god help us.
      – The PATRIOT ACT is one of those areas where I think libertarians are deluded. You have terrorists trying to kill us. The government will need new measures to catch and stop them. Perhaps you think it’s worth the risk to not give government those powers, but I’m not quite on board with that.

      1. The Patriot Act offers far more broad powers than needed to curtail terrorism.

        I will stand corrected the day it is repealed. Till then I will just observe a very scary expansion of government police powers.

        Lots of liberals have good intentions with their policies. It doesn’t mean the long term results don’t cause misery and the opposite of their intent.

        The same applies to conservatives.

      2. Unsuccessful troll is unsuccessful.

  9. the “right” in Germany, which is well to the Left of the American center

    The situation is rather more nuanced than that tired old clich? would indicate. “Christian democracy” is almost exactly what today’s Republican party practices.

    1. Yes, “right” and “left” postions really only have meaning in a particular context. When I lived in Munich during the 90s many of my German friend thought I was some sort of anti-authoritarian hippy. I Munich I was lumped with the “left”, but in my home state of Alaska I’m supposed to be a “conservative”.

  10. Tax cuts are really only good if matched with spending cuts. Tax cuts matched with more borrowing are horsehit imo.

    That’s just leaving our kids with the bill

  11. If a Republican sides with Libertarians on the war and civil liberties, as well as the free market, of course we applaud him. Just don’t have much opportunity to do so.

    I agree that there isn’t much to applaud from Republicans. But Republicans supporting tax cuts and the WOT isn’t different than Germans supporting cradle to grave welfare states and mounds of regulation while supporting (only rhetorically so far) miniscule tax cuts. Neither are Libertarian, or even close to it. So why apply the label to the Germans but not the Republicans?

    And the German FDP wants to bring German troops home from Afghanistan

    Both of them?!

  12. A 2006 poll in Germany found that a staggering 60 percent of respondents thought Islam was “incompatible with Western democracy.

    This is not staggering. Islam, in its current form, is incompatible with Western democracy, just as the form of Christianity that existed in the year 1000 was incompatible with Western democracy. Christianity eventually became more tolerant, and Islam will too. I just hope it happens soon.

  13. Whatever form of Islam many of my neighbors here in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn are practicing seems perfectly compatible. Perhaps you might consider not generalizing so much.

  14. Having witnessed more disappointing U.S. elections than I care to admit, I’m not optimistic about Republicans (or Democrats) ever voting in favor of liberty. Sure, they always talk a good game before the election. But once they gain office, they vote business as usual.

  15. Tax cuts are really only good if matched with spending cuts.

    I don’t know…i think i would be pretty happy with tax cuts and flat spending…

    What I really dislike is the spending increases.

  16. This is not staggering. Islam, in its current form, is incompatible with Western democracy, just as the form of Christianity that existed in the year 1000 was incompatible with Western democracy. Christianity eventually became more tolerant, and Islam will too. I just hope it happens soon.

    You can find pretty tolerant Muslims in the US. They seem to work well with democracy.

  17. This is not staggering. Islam, in its current form, is incompatible with Western democracy, just as the form of Christianity that existed in the year 1000 was incompatible with Western democracy. Christianity eventually became more tolerant, and Islam will too. I just hope it happens soon.

    You can find pretty tolerant Muslims in the US. They seem to work well with democracy.

    How’s this for generalization:

    Here in West Oakland, most of the liquor stores are run by Yemeni immigrants who are practicing, tolerant muslims.

    The intolerant muslims around here are generally of the Nation of Islam-style black muslims, some of whom have been known to smash the aforementioned liquor stores for selling alcohol to black people (and therefore oppressing them).

    Go figure.

  18. I hate the Nation of Islam so bad. I don’t agree with the Nations of Gods and the Earths either, but they are much, much better in general than the NOI.

    But, yeah, Joshua Corning and Rhywun are right.

    Incidentally, I also recall a German libertarian posting in the comments here a few months back.

  19. *laugh*

    Yeah, right.

  20. Art POG – NGE / 5% – You mean these guys? Racial supremacists of any stripe are pretty disgusting, but at least that song has a better groove than anything Skrewdriver did.

    Of course, I haven’t exactly heard everything either band has done, so it may be an unfair comparison.

  21. My mistake. If wikipedia is to be believed, NGE can’t really be called a racial supremacist group.

  22. NOI is less Islamic than Mormons are Catholic.

  23. if that makes any sense. . .

    What I mean is, NOI is a huge deviation from any sort of Islamic orthodoxy. It’s best understood as it’s own movement/religion.

    Maybe a better analogy would be NOI:Islam as Moonies:Christianity

  24. “Now that she has been liberated from her “grand coalition” with the opposition socialists, Merkel, and her new ally Westerwelle, have a chance to rein in powerful labor unions, slash punitive taxes on both individuals and businesses, and deregulate an overregulated labor market.”

    The author of the article is clueless…

    Merkel became almost left leaning during the grand coalition, and she wouldn’t dare to destroy the social market.
    And she is for MORE regulation in the market…
    And they don’t have anything to do with labor unions because in germany the state doesn’t take sides between labor unions and corporations…

    Totall bullshit article, sorry…

    1. Being a German (and Libertarian) I would agree with the parent post: The article is somewhat superficial and should have been researched more thoroughly. “Junge Freiheit”, for example, is definitively not “popular with the NPD crowd”, as the latter are more or less open advocates of National Socialism (openly advocating the NS and Hitler is a punishable offense in Germany, but they try to push the limits as far as they can), whereas the “Junge Freiheit” sees itself as conservative and sharply distances itself from such endeavors, up to the point where they sue everyone who denounces them as being neonazis or right-wing extremists (“rechtsradikal”).

      The CDU, on the other hand, may have been right-center some 10 years ago, but has since then totally degraded into another social-democrat party (“liberal” in the american sense), approving of not only heavy regulation of the economy, incredibly high taxes and welfare-statism, but also bullying individuals with countless laws and regulations enacted under the pretense of protecting the environment and anti-terrorist measures (even though we never had any terrorist attacks for almost 30 years now).

      The FDP also is not a libertarian party, not even “libertarian-leaning”, although they are in fact a little bit more market-friendly than the others. Real libertarians in Germany commonly refer to them as the “yellow socialists” (yellow is the party color of the FDP) or “the lesser evil” (in relation to the other, even more statist parties).

  25. omg!

    Noami was right in schock doctrine?!?
    suck it libtards!

  26. There are many libertarians in Germany. I have meet dozens of them. And many of these libertarians are connected to the FDP.

  27. Um, how did the German version of the Pirate Party do?
    It’s hard to say “Pirate Party” without giggling.

    1. Got around 2%, which is quite a success as in national elections Germans tend to vote for bigger parties (since there is a minimum requirement of 5% of the votes to get into the Bundestag at all).

  28. Of course the disadvantage of the tree structure is that if rbuchanan is checking only the bottom for new material, s/he won’t see the branch of interest.

  29. This thought has been juggling around in my head for a few months now …

    I recall reading an aticle at The Nation (I know, ick), in which the writer argues that the centralization of the economy was caused not by government intervention (which the author claims was Reagan’s concept) but by economies of scale favoring giant corporations in an industrialized society. In other words, having a few really large companies was the most efficient economic form. The point of the article was to argue that centralized regulation was necessary to manage an economy that was inherently centralized to prevent these giant rapacious companies from exploiting their market power.

    Now, whether that’s true or not, it’s also true that our economy is becoming increasingly decentralized due to the advance of information technology.

    The current recession is (by my observation) accelerating a transition towards a kind of virtual economy – by virtual I mean one where transactions occur online, instead of in brick and mortar shops. We’ve already got Blockbuster and Hollywood Video in bankruptcy, soon to be non-existant. And at the moment Amazon is driving Barnes and Noble and Borders out of business.

    Yet, at the same time, we’re seeing expansions in online small businesses, coordinated via some of the big internet sites. Ebay hosts “Ebay shops” for hundreds (thousands?) of what are effectively self-employed small business people. Amazon allows you to buy used books indirectly from dozens of used booksellers.

    So given that the economy is naturally becoming less centralized, if you use the logic employed by the article above, wouldn’t that also imply a need for administrative decentralization and hence deregulation?

    As many other libertarians have observed, socialism seems to NEED centralization of production in a few large corporations, in order to facilitate regulation and socialized control of the “means of production”. Not that production was every centralized enough to make socialism work (the information problem), but at this point, the economy seems to becoming even more decentralized and even more complex. So it seems that the best economic moment for socialism may have passed. We’re no longer in a world where the economy is naturally dominated by a few giant corporations (if we ever were), we’re entering one where centralization carries no economic advantage, and a small bookseller, or crafter can compete (over the internet) on the same playing field as Mattel or Borders.

  30. the article is a piece of trash even by the standards of fake-libertarian “reaason” magazine.

  31. And I’ve a couple of words for the national-defense anti-terrist right-wing types : FUCK YOU.

  32. Well now, that was an eye-opening and informative comment.

    1. Referring to the two comments above; I failed to hit the “reply to this” button.

  33. I thought unrestricted immigration was a wonderful thing. How can they be having problems with it?

    1. Well, if you trust the local lefties, that is because ethnic Europeans are bigoted, fascist, xenophobic, Nazi subhumans who deserve to be replaced by someone else.

      If you think about it yourself, you might come to a conclusion that importing large numbers of people from backward, tribal zones of Earth (like central Anatolia or Rif mountains in Morocco or NWFP in Pakistan still is) will effectively transplant the backwardness with them.

      As one British Pakistani writer says: “You can take man out of Pakistan, but you cannot take Pakistan out of man.”

  34. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke

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