Prosperity & the Provision of Symbolic Goods

It is always interesting, if nothing else, to see similar ideas espoused in (sometimes vastly – see an earlier post involving Tyler Cowen and Ion Iliescu) different contexts. But a recent example (also involving Tyler Cowen, go figure) has the added value of prompting questions about a unified theory of Western democracies’ political-economic trajectory. I mean, I dunno, isn’t that what you spend most of your Sundays thinking about?

First up is Cas Mudde, professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia and giver of this talk at Michigan this past September. Amongst his (weaponry)* arguments was one which suggested that, on a pan-European basis, the rise of far-right parties has been most prominent in the countries with the best economic performance during the the European debt crisis, and that this phenomenon could be explained by the fact that these far-right parties traffic in symbolic goods, the provision of which is a secondary concern compared to that of basic economic prosperity. A pithier version might be: if Dutch people were poor they would be more concerned with electing governments capable of delivering economic growth, but because they’re quite well-off they can afford to vote for people like Geert Wilders instead.

Then today Tyler Cowen muses:

I worry that the general decline of discretionary government spending may make politics less stable (but also more interesting, not necessarily in a good way).  When there is plenty of spending to bicker about, politics revolves around that question, which is relatively harmless.  When all the spending is tied up, we move closer to the battlefield of symbolic goods, bringing us back to “less stable and more interesting.”…Arguably a good deal of American politics is a cloaked debate over whether a particular kind of Christian worldview ought to enjoy higher or lower social status.

Both seem plausible, so here is an attempt to make them compatible. Western democracies have reached a level of economic prosperity high enough to allow a substantial number of their citizens to concern themselves with their governments’ provision of symbolic goods roughly contemporaneously with reaching a demographic structure that, by virtue of established entitlement programs, channels an enormous amount of government spending towards predetermined destinations (in the United States, Medicare and Social Security, for example). The result is governments with little scope for discretionary spending and electorates who don’t much have an interest in where the cash that does remain ends up.

I almost laugh at myself for writing what follows, since it so perfectly mirrors what anti-immigration trolls assume is the libertarian policy response to everything, all the time, everywhere, but here goes: economic gains aside, if an influx of young voters un-steeped in the juices of American cultural politics and interested primarily in government as a provider of effective policy making will help reduce the population’s per-capita demand for symbolic goods, then immigration to the United States cannot rise fast enough.**

*It’s not clear to me why this is subtitled in Spanish, but why not I suppose?
**This is not to suggest that I identify as a libertarian (I do not), but there seems to be a large subset of Marginal Revolution readers predisposed to assuming that anyone who does not hate-read the blog must be one