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Britons, and not just those on the left, have a romantic view of political protest on both sides of the Channel. “The French will not sit idly by!” one might say without knowing, let alone having to endure, this extreme manifestation of a culture of dissent. (Except for the background noise and scenic color on a weekend trip to Paris.) Last spring, when the government raised the pension age, France saw its most intense street action since 1968. King Charles’ state visit postponed. Most presidents abandon or soften reforms. This does not. result? Prolonged pain, but also slightly healthier public finances.
Therefore, my award for Politician of the Year (a very narrow category, such as the 84th Academy Awards in 2012) is Emmanuel Macron. I can’t imagine the executive being very fond of his pension projects, as at least Angela Merkel opened the door to refugees or even Margaret Thatcher’s confrontation with the mining unions . This is relevant to Macron’s life, with its central theme of resisting external pressures, whether to abandon his romantic partners or to work within the traditional party system of the Fifth Republic.
Western leaders need some stubbornness. The purpose of this column is to argue that politicians are being dishonest to voters about the fiscal challenges in developed countries, where public debt is near historic highs. But the line itself is a dodge. The real problem is that voters don’t like the truth. In 2017, then-UK Prime Minister Theresa May asked the public to contribute more towards the cost of late-life care. She never recovered from that rudeness. In the United States, the electoral cost to Republicans of questioning federal rights is greater than the electoral cost of their continued support of the twice-impeached Donald Trump. Compare their victory under him in 2016 to their defeat four years ago under the decent but no-nonsense Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.
Raising taxes would be equally inflammatory. Now that the British government has done this, it is bound to be overthrown at the next election. (The opposition saw this and ruled out all forms of tax increases, not just those on low- or middle-income earners.) yellow vests Remember, several presidents during Macron’s first term were uncomfortable with fuel taxes. If voters appear to want it both ways – a welfare state but not a commensurate tax burden – then the truth is worse than that. There is a third aspect to their (our) stubbornness. Immigration can improve the fiscal situation by improving the ratio of workers to seniors, but it is also deeply unpopular.
This was not a brilliant generation of Western leaders, no. But it’s hard to know what even Eisenhower and Adenauer’s group would do when they were under siege by public opinion on the central question of government: how to fund it. Debt has been a problem for some time as baby boomers approach retirement, but low interest rates have made it seem less urgent. These numbers started to rise towards the end of 2021. Two years later, voters don’t seem ready to have a frank discussion about, say, how much care the state can provide in a world where people live to be 100 years old.
The Times’s Matthew Parris writes that Britain’s future belongs to Argentina. That is, an unrealistic public and an overcommitted political class will be trapped in a cycle of fiscal delusion until rich countries become upper-middle-income countries. Whether or not this nightmare materializes—where small changes in policy can have a huge impact on public debt over time—the first of these two culprits, voters, is underdiscussed.
Think of America. In a nation destined to be divided, voters overwhelmingly oppose cost-saving reforms to Medicare or Social Security. During every debt-ceiling crisis, people typically accuse Washington of partisanship and small-mindedness. But the confusion — Republicans ousted congressional leader Kevin McCarthy this year over budget concerns — can be traced to the public and its demands on the country. It would be chivalrous but wrong to see this all as a flaw within the elite.
How to fix it? An increasingly popular idea is to form a bipartisan commission to propose budget reforms. The thinking is that if both parties have policies, neither side will lose the other’s votes. This is sensible, but also reveals the public’s existential fears. This is true in individualistic America as well. Imagine the challenge in Britain, where paternalistic traditions run deep. Or in continental Europe. After 2023, one won’t have to do that. Western leaders should study his harrowing experience, if only to prepare for their own experiences.