The effort to form a coalition government in Germany may finally be coming to an end. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s original plan after last September’s election fell apart when the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) decided to not join a coalition due to the fiscally irresponsible demands of other parties. It’s unfortunate that major American media regularly refer to the FDP as “pro-business” (or occasionally “business-friendly”). See, for instance, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Reuters. It’s not exactly wrong, but it’s incomplete and misleading. The party would be better described as pro-market rather than pro-business, and it’s also liberal on such issues as gay marriage, marijuana legalization, the dangers of surveillance. It pushed its coalition partners, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the allied Christian Social Union, to end conscription in 2011.
In the United States such a party would be called libertarian, or maybe “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” In the rest of the world it’s called liberal. A helpful description for American readers might be “the free-market liberal FDP.”
In this case Wikipedia does a better job than the journalists: “The FDP strongly supports human rights, civil liberties, and internationalism. The party is traditionally considered centre-right. Since the 1980s, the party has firmly pushed economic liberalism, and has aligned itself closely to the promotion of free markets and privatisation.”
A merely pro-business party might join the European People’s Party (along with most Christian Democratic parties) or the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (along with the Conservative Party of the United Kingdom) in the European Parliament. Instead it’s part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, as well as the broader Liberal International.
The FDP has been part of a governing coalition for most of Germany’s post-1945 history, usually in coalition with the CDU/CSU but during the 1970s with the Social Democratic Party. It is the most pro-trade party in Germany, strongly endorsing projects such as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union, and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement between the United States and the EU (on hold since President Trump’s inauguration). It supports the EU but wants to demand more fiscal responsibility among EU member states. It rejects federal minimum wage laws, advocates more competition in heavily regulated industries and professions, and promotes a smaller and more efficient welfare state, perhaps with a negative income tax and individually funded health and retirement systems. Because of its liberal social policies and support for entrepreneurship and globalization, the FDP did better among 18-to-24-year-old voters in last fall’s election than any other age group.
Unfortunately, the United States lacks a (classical) liberal party, one committed to freer markets and more personal freedom. Germany has one, and “pro-business” doesn’t capture its ideology or its appeal.
Fred Roeder is an economist from Berlin and chief strategy officer of Students For Liberty.