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Why Do British Conservatives Treat Deficits So Differently?

Every once in a while, one experiences a “clarifying moment,” foreshadowing an important policy debate that hasn’t yet taken shape. In 2003, for example, just before the Iraq war began, I heard Paul Berman give a talk to a group of liberals and leftists on his new book, “Terror and Liberalism.” The reception was almost uniformly hostile, so much so that Berman warned that the left was in danger of demonizing George Bush in the same way that the right had demonized Bill Clinton. He was prescient. The syndrome is called “Bush Derangement,” and it continues to afflict many on the left.  

A few weeks ago, I experienced another of those clarifying moments, this time involving the right and bringing to light an important distinction between Americans and the British. I was at a dinner party dominated by conservatives, where the main speaker was a prominent economist who had worked in the Bush administration. The subject was the danger from the growing national debt, and there was general agreement around the table about the kinds of actions that would be necessary: an end to mortgage deductions, a tax on employer-provided health benefits, a value-added tax on consumption. New Jersey governor Christopher J. Christie was praised for taking on his state’s unions.

The discussion, I thought, had gone too far in one direction, and I spoke up: “So you’re going to take away my mortgage deduction and tax my health benefits and make me pay more for everything I purchase. I think I’m a reasonable guy, but I’m beginning to feel like one of those Greek workers out on the streets protesting the government cuts.

Where are the tax increases for Wall Street and those corporate executives making millions?”

The economist replied that you couldn’t collect enough revenue by taxing the rich and, inevitably, it was the middle class that was going to have to pay. Only later, when I experienced a shiver of l’esprit d’escalier, did I realize I should have responded: It isn’t just a matter of economics or of numbers, it’s also a question of fairness. Gov. Christie is ready to cut aid to education, yet he also wants to reduce the tax on millionaires. But if we’re in a debt crisis (and, granted, there are economists like Paul Krugman who take a different view), then the pain should be shared.

One of the dissenters at the dinner that evening was a British economics journalist. It was he who reminded me of the striking difference between British and American conservatives, a difference that was highlighted by David Cameron’s important speech at Milton Keynes earlier this month. Cameron declared that Britain’s economic crisis was much worse than he had anticipated before he took office, and that drastic cuts would be necessary. But he also said “I want this Government to carry out Britain’s unavoidable deficit reduction plan in a way that strengthens and unites the country,” and, “I have said before that as we deal with the debt crisis we must take the whole country with us—and I mean it.” He added that George Osborne, his chancellor of the exchequer, also meant it when he said “we are all in this together.”

We’ll have to wait until all the reactions are in to Cameron’s June 22 emergency budget before we can determine just how much he meant it, but it’s worth noting that “we are all in this together” is part of a long line of British thinking going back to Edmund Burke (and including Churchill). It indicates a very different outlook from the laissez-faire, everyone’s-on-his-own perspective that dominates conservative thought in the United States. Tony Judt has observed that the American right derives its ideas not from a British tradition but from libertarian Austrians like Friedrich von Hayek, whose suspicion of the state came from their encounters with totalitarianism. Whatever the case, it seems that at the present moment Anglophone conservatives on the two sides of the Atlantic are speaking very different languages.

Barry Gewen has been an editor at The New York Times Book Review for over 20 years.