Friday, August 20, 2004

Power as a Moderating Influence

I'd stated not so long ago that I think the argument that the fact of exercising power inevitably moderates the extremist tendencies of any political party is a flawed one, as counterexamples like the last days of the Weimar Republic illustrate. Nonetheless, as Jason Soon shows with Germany's Green Party, it can indeed happen on occasion.

As some readers may have noticed, I have been engaged in a bit of a debate with some commenters over whether it's so easy to write off the left parties as 'authoritarian' or 'statist'. My view is that it's not necessarily true that parties like the Greens and Democrats are destined to remain 'statist' forever. I also think it would be a mistake to dismiss the constituences of these parties which are probably disproportionately drawn from the New Economy professional classes and are 'Bourgeois Bohemians' and therefore arguably more libertarian than that of other constituencies.

Government has transformed the Green Party of Germany. When its members first entered the country's stuffy parliament, they lobbied for more pot plants in the corridors of power. Today Green MPs are leading exponents of free-market economics and reform of Germany's hulking welfare state.

"The Green Party has become the driving force behind the German reform process," said Rainer Guntermann, an economist with investment house Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein.


Six years ago the Green Party became a junior partner in Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's Social Democrat Party-led coalition government.

Since then, it has maintained pressure on the SPD to stay the distance on far-reaching reforms of welfare and taxation, including reductions in the highest tax rates. Certainly, the party today is far removed philosophically from its namesake, the Australian Greens.

Its enthusiasm for reform regularly generates tension within Mr Schroder's so-called red-green coalition, with the Green Party pushing hard for liberalisation of the country's antiquated citizenship laws and legal recognition of homosexual relationships. Party leaders took a particularly hard line in talks with the conservative opposition aimed at pushing through the immigration law.

Recently, they insisted the government stand firm in the face of protests against controversial reductions in welfare benefits for the long-term unemployed ...

A paper drawn up four years ago by Margareta Wolf, a leading Green Party spokeswoman on economics and a former parliamentary secretary in the Department of Economics, set the tone for the party in government.

In the paper, Ms Wolf argued the coalition government should concentrate on "dismantling bureaucracy" and achieving structural reform of the hard-pressed labour market.

A survey released this week underscores the extent of transformation that has occurred. It shows the Green Party is replacing the small but consciously free-market Free Democrats as the preferred party of the country's top wage earners.
What has made the difference in a case like the German Green party? I can think of at least a few reasons off the top of my head, the first being that the Greens never were all that extremist to begin with, at least by comparison with the outright Communist and Neo-Nazi parties.

The second and more important reason I can think of for the rightwards drift is the internal organization of the Greens; they seem to operate on genuinely democratic principles where leadership is concerned, rather than using a cadre system of the sort utilized by Singapore's PAP or being organized in compliance with a F├╝hrerprinzip, in which a single unchallengeable leader is free to lay down the law as he pleases. What this democratic structure means in practical terms is that the German Green is more subject to "entryism" by moderate and affluent sorts who want a vehicle through which they can exercise actual power, rather than simply engaging in idle criticism as members of an impotent opposition, and the very proportional representation that enables a party like the Greens to enjoy a share in power with less than 10% of the vote also means that the Greens lack sufficient heft to make entryism as difficult as it would be in the USA or the UK.

If my theory is correct, we should not expect that a party organized along National Socialist, Bolshevik or Iranian theocratic lines should be moderated by the realities of office, regardless of how salutary an example the German Green Party may seem to set before our eyes.