First we had Renua Ireland. Then it was the Ross/Fitzmaurice publicity vehicle. Now it's the Social Democrats. No, you are not Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. I assure you that these are all different political parties. However, the sense of deja vu is unmistakeable. Stephen Donnelly, Catherine Murphy and Roisin Shortall have added their product onto an already crowded shelf and much like a shopper in the now famously defunct Clery's, I find myself simultaneously bewildered with choice and yet not seeing anything on offer that I remotely want. Such is life and politics, I suppose. In fairness to Donnelly et al, social democracy is not this author's cup of tea and those wishing to advance it will understandably be aiming their ideas at a different target audience. However, I will proffer them one piece of advice, which is genuinely meant to help not hinder - not like the Daily Telegraph's current campaign to get Jeremy Corbyn elected as the leader of the British Labour Party: Lose the Scandinavian obsession. It will doom your enterprise.
In last week's Sunday Times, Murphy presented her new party's prospectus to Middle Ireland and in fairness to her, some of her observations were surprisingly sensible for someone whose political career began in a Communist offshoot of the Republican movement. I was particularly impressed with her admission - a surprising one for a lefty - that Ireland's headline rates belie how heavily taxed Ireland is, as well as her refreshing proposition - again, surprising for a lefty - that the answer to Ireland's problems was to ensure that the money the government taxes is spent on providing high quality services and entitlements and not wasted. Having been treated over the last decade to a left led by Pat Rabbitte (who believed that incompetent public servants should not be sacked), Eamon Gilmore (who specialised in recycled Keynesian talking points) and Gerry Adams (whose understanding of economics is every bit as impressive as his system for handling sex abuse complaints), it is refreshing to think that there might be a left force that is prepared to do something other than shilling for the public sector. However, having identified a fair question, Murphy then proceeded to trot out a hackneyed and derivative answer: Make Ireland more like Scandinavia.
Scandinavian social democracy has become the middle class left's intellectually lazy single transferable answer to every major point of public policy. I suspect that to the educated left wing mind, Scandinavia represents a sober grown-upness that the chaotic "Bolivarian" revolutionaries of Latin America patently lack and a patrician openness to entrepreneurship and innovation that the more self-consciously working class left wing cultures of countries like Britain and France cannot emulate. Scandinavian social democracy is leftism shorn of the violence of revolution and the gaucheness of proletarianism - because deep down, we all know that a Volvo is more attractive than a Trabant, smoked salmon is more palatable than coddle and Borgen is a whole lot more highbrow than Eastenders. This, I believe, accounts for the number of times I've met people who advocate Scandinavian social policies and seem not to know even the most anodyne details of what they so passionately advocate. Scandinavia, it would seem, speaks to the emotions in more or less the same way as prestige luxury goods brands like Louis Vuitton and Rolex.
Nowhere is the folly of the Scandinavian fixation better exemplified than in the valorisation of the countries' subsidised childcare systems - which appeal both to the politically correct egalitarianism of the public sector and the unions and the constant quest on the part of Ireland's rent-seeking business lobby to socialise yet more costs to the burdened taxpayer. To understand the concept of subsidised childcare, imagine two couples, each of whom has one main breadwinner and suppose that the non-breadwinner in each couple paid the other €2,000 a month to look after his/her children. The net effect would be that (a) the two parents would sacrifice time with their own children in order to spend it with somebody else's; (b) each parent would earn €2,000 a month, the entirety of which would have to be spent on paying the other; and (c) each parent would have to pay tax on their respective earnings, meaning that each would be financially worse off for no opposable benefit. To each parent, this would make no sense, so why would they do it? To unscrupulous governments, however, the arrangement would generate (a) tax revenue; (b) an extra €48,000 in GDP to make the economy look better than it really is; and (c) create two paying jobs which swell the labour force participation rate and make unemployment rates look lower than they truly are.
The above example is no fantasy. It is the actual camouflaged effect of subsidised childcare. Instead of inducing two parents to pay eachother, the government taxes the main breadwinner in each couple, finds two people working as, say, retail cashiers, uses the money taken in higher taxes to hire those individuals to work in government run creches and then tells the two couples that they can get their taxes back if the two non-bread winning parents go to work as... retail cashiers. These arrangements allow Scandinavian governments to boast about their inflated GDP, impressive labour force participation and their supposed gender equality whilst having an excuse to drag more money into the public sector. The arrangement does nothing for ordinary citizens, but it sure makes the societies in which they live look good, which, to many people, is what really matters. In the real world, however, most of us just don't have the luxury of living in a Potemkin village in which public policy is driven by aesthetic considerations, which is why creating artificially subsidised double-income households will do no good and some harm.
Of course, a much better question that a social democratic party could be asking is: Why is it that in the bad old days of the 1970s and 80s, households with only one breadwinning spouse could afford to own their own suburban single family homes without needing both spouses to have paying jobs? The problem with that question is, of course, that it raises all sorts of uncomfortable follow-up questions about monetary policy, planning and land use law, building regulations, environmental laws and tax policies? And who wants to do that when you can just mouth off asinine bromides about "social justice"?