Theodore Dalrymple, contributing editor of the City Journal and Dietrich Weissman Fellow of the Manhattan Institute, has recently reviewed Samuel Gregg’s new book, Becoming Europe at the Library of Law and Liberty.
In this well-written book, Samuel Gregg explains what can only be called the dialectical relationship between the interests of the European political class and the economic beliefs and wishes of the population as a whole. The population is essentially fearful; it wants to be protected from the future rather than adapt to its inevitable changes, while at the same time maintaining prosperity. It wants security more than freedom; it wants to preserve what the French call les acquis such as long holidays, unlimited unemployment benefits, disability pensions for non-existent illnesses, early retirement, short hours, and so forth, even if they render their economies uncompetitive in the long term and require unsustainable levels of borrowing to fund them, borrowing that will eventually impoverish everyone. Many companies, including the largest, lobby the political class to be shielded from the cold winds of international competition and become, in effect, licensed traders. Having succumbed to the temptation to grant all these wishes, the politicians now dare not admit that they have repeatedly as a consequence to promise three impossible things before breakfast. We all know what to do, said the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, but not how to get re-elected afterwards; and so Pompadourism has become the ruling political philosophy of the day. Madame de Pompadour’s cynical but prophetic witticism, après nous le déluge has become the economic mission statement of almost the entire European political class.
At the same time, the word solidarity in Europe has come to mean transfer payments from one part of the population to another, much of the money naturally enough sticking to the fingers of those state employees who administer the transfer, and who are now numerous enough to constitute a significant and sometimes even preponderant political constituency of their own. Far from promoting real solidarity, however, such a system promotes bureaucratization and conflicts of interest between those who pay and those who receive. When a system of international transfer payments is instituted in Europe, as is the desire of the European political class with the possible exception (for obvious reasons) of the German, Dutch and Finnish, the likelihood of national conflicts is great, and the potential for disaster enormous. Europe is not building a United States: it is building a Yugoslavia, with Van Rompuy as its unlikely Marshal Tito.
Nevertheless, there are worrying signs that America is taking on some of the worst characteristics of Europe. Its population is becoming more fearful of the future and seeking more legislative protection from competition. The welfare system, though less extensive than that of most of Europe, is quite large enough to be unsustainable. Political lobbying to obtain protection of one kind or another is more important for the prosperity of many American industries than efficiency, competitiveness or innovation. The Republican party, though it makes small-government noises when in opposition, is just as bad as, and sometimes even worse than, the Democrats when it comes to public spending when in office. Everyone wants public expenditure reduced except for his slice of the pork in the pork barrel.