The truly fundamental question that is at the heart of the disaster toward which we are racing is being debated only in America: is it possible for a free market economy to support a democratic socialist society? On this side of the Atlantic, the model of a national welfare system with comprehensive entitlements, which is paid for by the wealth created through capitalist endeavour, has been accepted (even by parties of the centre-Right) as the essence of post-war political enlightenment.
This was the heaven on earth for which liberal democracy had been striving: a system of wealth redistribution that was merciful but not Marxist, and a guarantee of lifelong economic and social security for everyone that did not involve totalitarian government. This was the ideal the European Union was designed to entrench. It was the dream of Blairism, which adopted it as a replacement for the state socialism of Old Labour. And it is the aspiration of President Obama and his liberal Democrats, who want the United States to become a European-style social democracy.
But the US has a very different historical experience from European countries, with their accretions of national remorse and class guilt: it has a far stronger and more resilient belief in the moral value of liberty and the dangers of state power. This is a political as much as an economic crisis, but not for the reasons that Mr Obama believes. The ruckus that nearly paralysed the US economy last week, and led to the loss of its AAA rating from Standard & Poor’s, arose from a confrontation over the most basic principles of American life.
Contrary to what the Obama Democrats claimed, the face-off in Congress did not mean that the nation’s politics were “dysfunctional”. The politics of the US were functioning precisely as the Founding Fathers intended: the legislature was acting as a check on the power of the executive.