The Liberal Trilemma

Many people are looking for the reason to explain the Greek/Euro mess. Edmund Conway in the London Daily Telegraph has as good a reason as any. The current crisis, he writes, puts politicians face-to-face with the Rodrik Trilemma, conceived by Dani Rodrik of Harvard. Here's the concept as Rodrik describes it in his blog:

I have an "impossibility theorem" for the global economy ... It says that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: we can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

Let's just say that if you combine all three ingredients, you get Greece.

But the trilemma is not a universal problem. It is only a liberal problem. That's because in the United States, at least, only liberals want to maximize the power of the state. In liberal-speak, "democracy" and "national sovereignty" are codewords for the slogan "All Power to the Liberals."

Liberals acquire and maintain political power by distributing privileges and bounties to their supporters. When you decide to do that, you inevitably press the pedal to the metal on "democracy" and "national sovereignty." And that means that you are bound to sacrifice individual and national prosperity ("global economic integration") on the altar of politics. Sooner or later, you hit the wall. Just like Greece.

In other words, under liberals, democracy means the out-and-out conversion of the limited constitutional state into a patronage state. 

When you get a single political party wedded to the patronage concept, you get the United States. When both political parties are patronage parties, then you get Thailand and riots in the streets. Here is a telling report from Bangkok.

The central problem is that Thailand is torn between two rival camps, each led and directed by rich and powerful factions. Though ostensibly divided by ideological differences, in reality the anti-government Redshirts and the pro-government Yellowshirts are best characterised as competing patronage networks, bound together primarily by personal loyalties and emotional attachments.

Nominally, liberals are not too keen on national sovereignty, if it means cold wars on Communism or global wars on terrorism. But the opportunity to acquire political power is too tempting to ignore. So they have replaced real wars with the "moral equivalent of war," making every issue into a domestic political war. They are keen on spending trillions of dollars to win gussied up national wars on poverty and wars on hate. In the 1970s we had an energy crisis that required a national project to convert to syn-fuels. Now they have invented a global warming crisis that requires a national project to convert to "green energy." What does that mean? It means government spending on subsidies and privileges to reward favored elite constituencies and crony capitalists in the energy sector.

When it comes to global economic integration, liberals are all in favor as long as it puts global commerce under control of a global political elite. Otherwise, what's the point?

Rodrik Trilemma? If you ask me, it's a simple dilemma. You want political power? I guess you don't like global economic growth. You like a free economy? Then you'll insist on limited government. What is so hard about that?

For conservatives, the Rodrik Trilemma is meaningless. Conservatives don't want to plunder the state to service special interests. Democracy for conservatives is merely the election of practical men and women to write practical laws to secure the blessings of liberty. Conservatives don't want to deploy national resources into moral equivalents of war that divide the nation. They just want to use national power to apply occasional sharp blows to the heads of thug dictators and militant anti-Western terrorist networks. All of this can be done with limited government and a national sovereignty powered by a defense budget of about 5 percent of GDP. 

I listened over the weekend to President Peyton R. Helm of Muhlenberg College tell his graduating class not to retreat into a subculture, like Fox News or MSNBC, where everyone agrees with them. Then he told them a parable about wonderful government programs and antisocial reluctance to pay taxes. Hey, Mr. President down there in that liberal echo chamber. What do you think of British Prime Minister Cameron's simple concept: "There is such a thing as Society. It's just not the same thing as the State"?

I used to think that once conservatives had shown liberals what limited government could do, then everyone would go home and live happily ever after. But after the experience of the Bush years and the young Obama administration, I have become sadder and wiser. Liberals won't ever stop preferring power over prosperity. Not until the American people present them with a Tea Party Dilemma: Get back to limited government, or we revoke your hall passes.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.