The Third Party Chimera

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Megan McArdle reacts to Thomas Friedman’s cri de coeur for a third party to save us from the craven mendacity of our current party duopoly:

It’s not that I’m against third parties, mind you. It’s just that when I look at multiparty states elsewhere, I can’t say that they look noticeably more honest than our two-party system. A third party might be an improvement over the ones we’ve got. But I doubt it would get into office by telling us the truth: that solving our problems is going to mean hefty tax increases or unpleasant spending cuts, or both. American voters seem to like being lied to.

That’s pretty much my usual reaction to this idea. Lots of other countries have multiparty democracies, and they don’t seem noticeably more willing to make tough choices than ours. Besides, contrary to the usual Friedmanesque conventional wisdom, a successful third party in America would probably be socially conservative and economically liberal, which I don’t think is what Friedman has in mind.

Just in general, “how does this work in other countries?” is an underasked question. It’s not a panacea, since every country has different demographics, different history, different cultural institutions, and different political traditions, and it’s not that the answers are always clear — they usually aren’t — but international comparisons do provide some useful guidance. Parliamentary vs. presidential, private healthcare vs. national, socialism vs. capitalism — you can infer some useful information about all these things if you’re willing to look beyond our borders and take other countries seriously, neither downplaying differences nor using them as excuses to ignore anything you don’t like. You can also get a pretty good idea of what doesn’t matter, and my quick read is that having more than two parties doesn’t generally improve things.

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