Simon Johnson and Peter Boone wrote an interesting article the UK Telegraph Saturday called “The New Feudal Overlords of Europe will be the bankers of the ECB.”
Johnson is also the co-author along with James Kwak of a thoughtful and provocative book 13 Bankers as well as a blog on economics. Also on the ECB see my colleague Sam Gregg’s Piece at Public Discourse
Using Hayek’s famous phrase “The Road to Serfdom” Johnson and Boone argue the demise of Europe will not be the welfare state and the growth of government as Hayek predicted, but rather a “financial elite gone awry” They write:
Hayek had the sign and the destination right, but was wrong about the mechanism. Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests are what ended up undermining democracy both in North America and in Europe. All industrialised countries are at risk, but it’s the eurozone – with its vulnerable structures – that points most clearly to our potentially unpleasant collective futures.
As a result of the continuing euro crisis, the European Central Bank (ECB) now finds itself buying up the debt of all the weaker eurozone governments, making it the – perhaps unwittingly – feudal boss of Europe. In the coming years, the ECB and the European Union will dictate policy. The policy elite who run these structures – along with their allies in the private sector – are your new overlords
It is arguable who exactly are the peasants, the vassals and the lords under this model – and what services will end up being exchanged, but there is no question we are seeing a sea change in the post-war system of property, power and prosperity across Western Europe, just as Hayek feared. An overwhelming debt burden will bring down even the proudest people.
The ECB-EU approach will not return countries to reasonable levels of growth – the debt overhang is simply too large. The southern and western periphery of the eurozone cannot grow out of their debts under these arrangements and so will stumble from stabilisation programme to stabilisation programme – as did Latin America in the 1980s. This is bound to lead to hostile politics, social unrest and more economic crises.
The debt crisis must be addressed and I don’t disagree with their assertion that corporate-government collusion is a serious problem (See my article on Davos Capitalism) though I am unclear on how “Unregulated finance, the ideology of unfettered free markets, and state capture by corporate interests” exactly go together, or what they mean by “unfettered free markets.” Since Johnson and Kwak argue in 13 Bankers that we’ve had a type of oligarchic capitalism and Johnson and Boone matter of factly talk about “welfare socialism” I assume they aren’t arguing that the Europe or the US have had laissez faire free markets over the last decades, so I am not exactly sure what they mean. But on to their main points.
Johnson and Boone argue that current debt levels and the lack of political will to do anything about it will end up wreaking havoc on EU countries and ultimately on the US and the world.
The UK and US need to prepare themselves for more storms. The United States will be in the pleasant position as the world’s safe haven, but this will only encourage America’s profligate politicians to spend more and build more debt.
The UK will bear much more pain from euro devaluation and financial dislocation, all exacerbated by its own large deficit and debts. We might well see one more invasion across the channel, this time by bond vigilantes who question Britain’s ability to rein in inflation as it builds too large debts.
At the end of this great tumult, Europe and the UK will have sound fiscal regimes. Debt will be defaulted on or inflated away, and nations will have dramatically cut spending.
Hayek’s predicted demise of western society as he knew it will prove correct, but welfare socialism will prove the victim, erased by a political and financial elite gone awry.
Interesting and worrying stuff and the article is well worth reading as is 13 Bankers. But one thing the authors seem to ignore in this piece is that while welfare socialism may be the victim of the collapse (not a bad thing in my estimation), it is fully a culprit as well.
It is precisely a massive welfare state that is a part of the problem. It not only requires outlandish and unsustainable spending on the parts of governments who are afraid to address the challenge lest they lose popular support. But it also encourages a culture of irresponsibility, and inculcates a sentiment in the population that you can maintain an pleasant middle class life indefinitely without actually having to produce goods and services that people want and need. They suggest several austere measures as a solution but doubt the political will to achieve it. What may be really needed is a complete rethinking of the role of government and the whole idea of the current welfare state. That would not only require political courage, but cultural rejuvenation and this is something neither politicians nor bankers can provide.