Sunday, January 06, 2008


There's a strange attempt by various people to brand one future path of the Republican party as similar to Christian Democratic parties in continental Europe. Some of the people pushing this, like George Bush's former speechwriter Michael Gerson, embrace the supposed characteristics of Christian Democracy -- a market economy but with a substantial safety net and Christian values as an animating source of policy -- as something that the post-Bush Republican party should embrace. Others, clearly alarmed by the rise of Mike Huckabee in the primaries, use the term as a pejorative for the direction in which he would take the party.

The latest round in the debate comes from the pejorative side, in Saturday's Wall Street Journal (subs. req'd; alt. free link) by Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute (a set of institutions that nicely captures the nervous custodians of Bush Republicanism). Here's one bit of his context-setting --

While virtually no one on the American right explicitly calls for the adoption of Christian Democracy, others besides Mr. Huckabee admire and advocate similar principles. For example, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's book, "It Takes a Family," echoed the Christian Democratic emphasis on placing the health of the family ahead of the health of the economy as a political principle.

The mention of Santorum is interesting because the European politician with whom Santorum has most eagerly pursued a collaborative enterprise is Iain Duncan-Smith, whose brand of Tory Catholicism is a very different animal from continental Christian Democracy. In particular, it's more conservative economically and socially than what you'd find on the Continent, although also more pragmatic than Santorum-type conservatism (as Margaret Thatcher was) about the laws that 1960s and 1970s social liberalisation had left on the books.

But anyway, the crux of Olsen's analysis is a comparison of the economic and social outcomes of the USA under 4 European predominantly CD-governed countries. This ends up being a strange group, especially when one is trying to attribute the nature of government as the sole determinant of these outcomes --

Every country which has been primarily governed by Christian Democrats since World War II (Germany, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands) is poorer than the United States, with substantially higher unemployment rates and slower economic growth. The differences aren't even close.

The per capita, purchasing-power-adjusted GDP of the richest of these countries--Holland--is 15% lower than that of the U.S. The GDP of every other country is at least 20% lower. The U.S. unemployment rate in 2006 was 4.6%; the average of the Christian Democratic four was over 7%, and it was that low only because the Netherlands diverts many of its unemployed to a disability program that enrolls nearly 10% of the workforce.

Incomes are more equally distributed: America's Gini coefficient, a widely used measure of income inequality, is much higher than in any of these countries. But that is simply the flip side of the other statistics. Christian Democratic countries choose lower incomes and higher unemployment as the price for their commitment to social welfare.

But these countries also fare worse on common measures of family well-being. German and Belgian divorce rates are higher than those in America, and the Netherlands' rate is roughly comparable. The 2005 out-of-wedlock birth rate was slightly lower in Germany (29%) than the U.S. (37%), but it was higher in Belgium (49%) and about the same in the Netherlands (35%). The overall birth rate in the U.S. is about 2.1 children per woman in her lifetime, about the level needed to keep the population stable. None of the Christian Democrat countries come close to that; Italy's is a meager 1.2.

It is not the case that Christian Democrat-led countries fare better at sustaining faith. According to a 2006 Harris poll, 73% of Americans believe in God. Similar polls taken in 2005 and 2006 show only 62% of Italians, 43% of Belgians, 41% of Germans and 34% of Dutch believe. A 2003 Harris poll found that 44% of Americans attend religious services at least once a week. According to the 2004 European Social Survey, fewer than 15% of Dutch and Belgians, and 10% of Germans, attend services that frequently.

But you could just as easily take other European countries outside the 4 and generate similar findings. Parties are as much as a consequence as a cause of social preferences and there is a common European aspect to those preferences. This issue comes to the fore when Olsen is trying to explain the electoral dynamics of CD governments --

Christian Democratic victories, which are largely due to Europe's proportional-representation electoral systems. The most successful parties win between 25% and 40% of the vote and form a government because a majority coalition cannot be formed without them.

But America's first-past-the-post system encourages factions to combine into a single party so that they are likelier to get over 50% of the vote, a level of support that an American Christian Democratic party is unlikely to attain.

So he's trying to have it both ways: attributing the outcomes to the fact of having CD governments, but then saying that we only get CD governments because they have to form coalitions with other parties. It's in those coalition compromises that key policies will be determined, making it much harder to see a distinctive CD component to them. Trying to map that very different process into the US system requires too many strained analogies to be workable. At least as a blog post.

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