- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2010

Americans don’t often extend to the Dutch the credit they might deserve - after all, they have given the world van Gogh, the pendulum clock and more innovations in cheese-making than I can do justice to here. Their politics and culture seem impenetrably alien to us - their native tongue sounds like endless karaoke-grade scatting - though their laws seem to appeal to our teenagers interested in both constitutionalism and marijuana. Still, it might be time that Americans finally take serious notice of a development slowly but discernibly unraveling within Dutch politics.

For the first time in years, conservatives in the Netherlands have made significant electoral gains, picking up 31 out of 150 parliamentary seats in the past month. The center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, more typically referred to as the Liberal Party and led by Mark Rutte, ran on an aggressive platform pushing for fiscally conservative policies, including deep spending cuts, budget-deficit reduction and the overall downsizing of the federal government. Not known for emulating libertarian-leaning Americans, the Dutch do seem to be experiencing a grass-roots Tea Party-style movement all their own.

While the tide of European politics generally has been drifting to the right in the wake of mounting fiscal doom, the new Dutch infatuation with fiscal restraint is a striking sign of a tectonic shift, as the nation has long served as a model, in Europe and among American admirers, of a well-functioning welfare state. It’s hard to find an analogy to convey adequately how remarkable a capitulation this is for the Dutch, but it’s roughly tantamount to Al Gore endorsing the Hummer. And yet no one in America, most conspicuously American conservatives, seems to have noticed.

In light of the dramatic Dutch turnaround, two questions simply demand to be answered.

First, what accounts for this watershed change of heart among Dutch citizens? As in many of its European counterparts, a long-standing tradition of progressive ideology was defeated by stubborn economic reality - the Netherlands is running a budget deficit of 6.6 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Still, the Dutch economic forecast is not as unremittingly bleak as what you might find in Greece, Hungary, Portugal or Spain (or any number of EU members soon to take their turn revealing fiscal recklessness). The most impressive aspect of the newfound Dutch prodigality is its long-term prescience. While the overall economy is still generally strong, the Dutch recently have witnessed the ferocious toll that ill-disciplined spending can take on a national economy. They also understand that they are soon to experience the same shifting demographic realities facing their nearly bankrupt neighbors.

In other words, the genius of the Dutch consists in averting a disaster before it actually arrives. This is in sharp contrast to the Greeks, who refused to acknowledge their own economic destitution long after it beset them. In fact, they swiftly took to the streets in angry protest when it was suggested that their massive bailout be accompanied by relatively modest reforms, only half-seriously referred to as an “austerity” package. In response to those who accused the Greeks of working too little and receiving too much, they plaintively countered: “Do you have any idea how much labor it takes to avoid all these taxes?” Even after they became a global spectacle for what amounted to a national tantrum, they still resisted any and all reforms that might inconvenience their generously subsidized lives. While the Greeks blithely drown in their collective sloth, the Dutch, with their feet firmly planted on dry ground, diligently build an ark.

Second, why is all this of particular significance to Americans? It’s important to note that Dutch conservatives typically have made limited headway in elections, almost entirely because of the divisive issue of immigration, especially of the Muslim variety. The proverbial bull in the china shop on this score, Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party, also managed to pick up 24 seats in the election. Dutch conservatives, much like American conservatives, have often been significantly hampered by the hard line they’ve consistently taken on immigration, often fostering and even deserving a reputation for immoderate xenophobia. However, by tempering their rhetoric, appealing to specific concerns like crime and the strain unregulated immigration replaces on the economy, the Freedom Party has managed to cast a wider net for voters. In fact, it actually succeeded in linking the problem of immigration to the case for fiscal caution, arguing that the absorption of immigrants immediately destined for the welfare rolls would only weaken an already strained economy. Americans could emulate the Dutch in this regard, focusing less on the contentious cultural cleavages that often attach to immigration and more on the many ways in which the absence of a comprehensive immigration policy taxes all our citizens, irrespective of ethnicity.

One of the biggest advantages American conservatives have in the next round of elections is an unambiguous and wide-scale example of a culture of entitlement finally busting at the seams. While President Obama satisfies his Eurocentric party elites by introducing more and more paternalistic big government, Europe itself struggles to move in the reverse direction, attempting to wean itself off the largesse its own governments once provided but can no longer sustain. It’s no wonder Greece reacted with such puerile and self-indulgent virulence - after a generation of habituated co-dependency, the European Union compelled it, in effect, to rewrite its social contract.

This is an importantlesson for Americans in what can and cannot be done, and maybe more poignantly, the extraordinary exertions it often takes to undo something. To give one example, the people of Massachusetts, who have been crushed collectively under the weight of their monstrously imprudent health care reform, freely and candidly acknowledge this fact and consistently tell pollsters they don’t want to surrender the many entitlements that come with it. One would think the United States wouldn’t need to look across a vast ocean for examples of grotesque economic mismanagement - we have our own mini-Greeces in California, New York, Michigan, etc., set up like Epcot-style re-creations of European insanity. Nevertheless, it can be easier to confront your own failings by reflectively identifying them first in others, like gazing at your imperfections in the mirror but softening the blow with dim light.

The Netherlands has often been considered a shining example (and is repeatedly cited as demonstrable proof) that a nation can combine generous social welfare and accommodating labor laws with a genuine respect for the power of free-market forces. This historically has been possible to achieve, given its small population (16.6 million), lack of potentially contentious ethnic diversity and general insulation from the troubles that plague the international theater. (No one thinks the Dutch need to devote a significant share of their GDP to defense spending.) In many ways, the Netherlands has been more of an intramural club rather than a full-fledged nation - its small-scale fishbowl republic is a poor model for countries as vast as some of its European partners, let alone the United States.

Still, the Dutch recently have figured out that the road to full-fledged socialism is a slick one and especially difficult to navigate when more and more of your passengers are retiring and refusing to take a turn driving. Just as the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that the love of equality often rides roughshod over the love of liberty, the easy comfort afforded by government handouts predictably dissolves the self-sufficient desire of a citizenry to give itself a hand up. The Dutch people’s experiment in a market-based welfare state now demands serious readjustment, and it is a testament to their prudence that they have acted so swiftly and so far in advance of real catastrophe.

Conversely, the United States finds itself in the peculiar position, under the leadership of the Democrats, of pining to emulate precisely those nations whose own experiments are proving to be spectacular failures, like a younger brother who imitates his older brother’s bad habits out of reflexive but irrational idolization. As elections near, conservatives should never tire of emphasizing our backward but parallel trajectory with Europe, the surreal fact that our leaders seem to demand Europeanization just as Europe looks to Americanize. And as counterintuitive as this may sound, they should ceaselessly cajole our stubbornly adolescent politicians to follow the surprisingly adult example given by the Netherlands and proudly “go Dutch” themselves.

Ivan Kenneally is a consulting editor for Perspectives on Political Science.