Video: Hundreds of protesters clashed with riot police across central Athens on Wednesday, smashing cars and hurling gasoline bombs during a nationwide labour protest against the government’s latest austerity measures. The former Development Minister Costis Hatzidakis was attacked by protesters outside a luxury hotel. He was escorted, bleeding from the scene as his attackers yelled “thieves” at him. Source: Russia Today
In the Greek daily Kathimerini, Alexis Papachelas writes:
There are no easy answers and, to make matters worse, we still have no idea about how the global crisis will affect Europe in early 2011.
The Greek government chose a course of treatment for the economy that is much like shock therapy, meaning that it tried to squeeze as many changes as possible into a short period of time.
If this strategy is successful, the government will have a strong card to play when it has to deal with its European peers and market forces in the case that debt restructuring is offered as a solution. If, however, the strategy fails, the shock therapy may turn into that extra bit of force that breaks the valve on the pressure cooker that is Greek society.
On Public Discourse, Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg observes in a new piece that “while moral beliefs have an important impact upon economic life, the manner in which they are given institutional expression also matters. This is illustrated by the different ways in which people’s responsibilities to those in need—what might be called the good of solidarity—are given political and economic form.”
… the rather modest welfare and labor-market reforms presently being implemented in Spain, Greece and France have sparked considerable moral indignation (and not just from welfare recipients) despite widespread acknowledgment that such reforms are inevitable. Obviously there are many whose negative reaction is partly driven by consciousness that such reforms mean that the days of not-very-demanding jobs for life may be numbered. Nevertheless it’s also true that many Western Europeans genuinely believe the good of solidarity is threatened by efforts to move beyond the present and economically unsustainable status quo, precisely because of the state-oriented institutional expression given by Europeans to the surely uncontroversial proposition that we are our brother’s keeper.
While Americans are often regarded as more individualistic than Western Europeans, this perception is partly driven by the different economic and institutional expressions that Americans have often given to the idea of concern for neighbor. This was among one of the distinguishing features of America that struck the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited the United States between 1831 and 1832. The emergence of social and economic problems, Tocqueville noted, did not elicit demands from Americans for the government to “just do something.” Indeed, Tocqueville marveled at the relative absence of government from American life and the corresponding vitality of civil society, especially when compared to the state’s all-pervasive presence in his native France.
Tocqueville quickly realized, however, that this “absence” of the state was not symptomatic of a callous disregard by Americans towards their fellow citizens in need. Though Americans tended, Tocqueville noted, to dress up their assistance to others in the language of enlightened self-interest, he observed that Americans usually expressed the value of helping those in need through the habits and institutions of free and voluntary association. In short, Tocqueville wrote, Americans banded together to try and resolve social and economic problems through voluntary associations. Some of these associations (like churches) had a more-or-less permanent presence in American society. Others lasted only as long as a particular economic or social problem persisted. As a consequence, the same pressures for centralized top-down government-led solutions and all their economic implications that prevailed in France were not present in the young American republic.
Another election has come and gone, and once again the balance of power has significantly shifted in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across America. Tuesday’s results are, I suppose, a win for fans of limited government, in that a Republican House of Representatives will make it more difficult for President Obama and his Democrat colleagues in the Congress to enact more of what has been a very statist agenda. But even with the prospect of divided government on the horizon, we who believe in individual liberty and the principles of classical liberalism still have much to be concerned with. Perhaps the primary concern is whether or not those Republicans who were swept into office—not due to any real love of the electorate for the Republican Party, but rather due to anxiety over the direction the Democrats have taken the country—will be able to hold to the principles of limited government and individual liberty that so many of them claimed to espouse during the campaign, or whether those principles will be abandoned in a mad pursuit of power. Forefront in the mind of every lover of liberty should be Lord Acton’s famous maxim: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
My sincere hope is that with Americans deeply dissatisfied with both major political parties and finding that the government is either unable or unwilling to solve the major fiscal and social problems that we face, people will begin to re-think their basic assumptions about the role of government in American life. For decades, the default assumption has been that the government is a force for good and can be a driver of positive social change. Witness Social Security, Medicare, the Great Society, the War on Poverty, etc. All of these programs were designed by experts to alleviate some pressing social need, and were assumed to be the right thing to do. After all, who wouldn’t want to help the poor and elderly to live a fuller, better life? And yet, as the years went by, all of these programs—though well-intentioned by their creators—have failed to achieve their lofty goals. The Social Security “trust fund” is devoid of funds and packed with IOUs left by politicians who, over the years, have spent the money promised to seniors on other programs. Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health care programs have warped the economics of health care, paying doctors less and less and therefore driving up the cost of private insurance in order to make up the difference. Obamacare is little more than an attempt by the government to solve a cost crisis—created in large part by government intervention—with even more extensive government intervention into the market. We already know how that story ends. And as for the Great Society and the War on Poverty, trillions of dollars over the years simply failed to alleviate poverty in America, and in many cases only created deeper, more entrenched social problems.
It is clear by now to anyone who cares to look that massive government intervention into society tends to do more harm than good, no matter how well intentioned the interventionists are. Government has its place—no arguments for anarchy are to be found here—but the government must be limited to its proper place. The genius of the American founding came in the limitation of the national government to certain enumerated functions, leaving the people at liberty to take care of the rest of life as they saw fit. The respect for individual liberty and the acknowledgement that the rights of citizens were not granted by the state but were granted to individuals by God himself provided a firm foundation for the vibrant growth and strength of the United States in the coming centuries. As a people, we need to realize that the further we move away from those founding principles and the more we cede our liberty to governmental agents in return for a promise of security, the less likely it is that we will remain strong, vibrant, and free.
At the Acton Institute 20th Anniversary Celebration, Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico reminded us of the roots of human dignity and the importance of individual liberty during his keynote address:
A new article from Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg published today in Acton News & Commentary. Sign up for the free, weekly email newsletter here.
A Tale of Two Europes
By Samuel Gregg
The word “crisis” is usually employed to indicate that a person or even an entire culture has reached a turning-point which demands decisions: choices that either propel those in crisis towards renewed growth or condemn them to remorseless decline.
These dynamics of crisis are especially pertinent for much of contemporary Europe. The continent’s well-documented economic problems are now forcing governments to decide between confronting deep-seated problems in their economic culture, or propping up the entitlement economies that have become unaffordable (and morally-questionable) relics in today’s global economy.
While some European governments have begun implementing long-overdue changes in the form of austerity-measures, welfare-reforms, and labor-market liberalization, the resistance is loud and fierce, as anyone who has visited France lately will attest.
No-one should be surprised by this. Such reforms clash directly with widespread expectations about employment, welfare, and the state’s economic role that have become profoundly imbedded in many European societies over the past 100 years. Yet it’s also arguable this is simply the latest bout of an on-going clash of economic ideas which goes back much further in European history than most people realize.
Certainly the contemporary controversy partly concerns the government’s role during recessions. From this standpoint, Europe (and America) is rehashing the famous dispute between the economists Friedrich von Hayek and John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s about how to respond to the Great Depression. Should we, as Hayek maintained, react by giving markets the flexibility they need to self-correct? Or do we prime the pump à la Keynes? (more…)
At MercatorNet, Sheila Liaugminas looks at the bank regulation push — enshrined in another 2,000 page document that few of the legislators behind this effort will actually read. In “Social Order on the Surface” she recalls an Acton conference where she heard this from Rev. Robert A. Sirico:
Politicians are not our leaders in a rightly ordered society, they are our followers … Not all views of culture are equal. but we can’t engage socially on our disagreements because everything becomes political … There is no legislature that can govern the human heart … A correct understanding of who the human person is is important to social ordering. Man is prior to the state. You can’t have a ‘common good’ if the good of the individual is not taken into consideration first.
“Statism is expanding in the U.S. right now under the guise of ‘the common good,'” Laugminas said. “Acton is only one institute engaging the debate about how Washington is handling the moral and ‘economic dimension of human reality,’ but we’d better pay attention.”
Advancing the “common good” behind the banner of statism has turned out to be an exercise in reckless selfishness and rapidly advancing insecurity. Where the gospel of redistribution of wealth was advertised as a way to ensure social equality, it now threatens to impoverish great masses of those who bought into the glittering promises. And promises are still being made. Recall President Obama telling Joe the Plumber that “spreading the wealth around” would be good for everybody (see video above).
Culture matters, much more so than politics. In “End of the European Siesta?,” Guy Sorman on City Journal explains why the financial fix for Europe’s debt problems are really superficial and temporary. Europe, he contends, needs to throw off the socialist ideologies — now embedded in cultural attitudes — that are at odds with its founding free market philosophy.
… the European Union is based on a free market. It was so conceived in political philosophy and in economics, and the only possible way to govern it is in accordance with such economic freedom. Yet all the national governments, even those of the right, have in fact created gigantic welfare states inspired by socialist ideology.
The fact is that, at the origins of Europe, Jean Monnet, a Cognac entrepreneur with strong American connections, concluded that European governments had never succeeded and would never succeed in making Europe a zone of peace and prosperity. He thus replaced the diplomatic engine with an economic engine: free trade and the spirit of enterprise, he envisioned, would generate “concrete areas of solidarity” that would eliminate war and poverty.
The “fatal drift” away from economic freedom, Sorman explains, inevitably led to the EU project going off the rails. Is America headed down the same path? Is the culture of free enterprise, for so long integral to what it means to be an American, now in permanent decline? More from Sorman on Europe:
Unfortunately, the national governments thought it possible to reap the economic benefits of a free Europe and the electoral delights of socialism. By “socialism,” I mean the unlimited growth of the welfare state—the accumulation of entitlements and jobs protected by the state. This de facto socialism, this sedimentation of electoral promises and acquired rights, grew in Europe at a much faster rate than did the economy or the population. It could thus only be financed by loans, which seemed risk-free, since the euro appeared “strong.” The euro’s strength drove its holders into a frenzy: suddenly, anything could be bought on credit. The result was a remarkably homogeneous indebtedness in all the countries of Europe, on the order of 100 percent of national wealth—ranging between Germany’s 91 percent and the Greeks’ 133 percent (a relatively modest difference), all reflecting a common socialist drift. Germany, Greece, Spain, and France differ less in their levels of debt or modes of administration, which are in fact quite similar, than in their debtors’ capacities to repay. All European states are run socialist-style, in contradiction with the European Union’s free-market principles. Some will be more able than others to deal with defaults, but all have drifted off course.
How shall we explain this fatal drift? The true cause lies in ideology. Socialism dominates minds across Europe, whereas liberalism—which has retained its original free-market meaning in Europe—is under attack in the academy, in the media, and among intellectuals generally. In Europe, to support the market against the state, to recommend modesty on the part of the state, is taken for an “American” perversion. And socialist ideology is sufficiently engrained that it’s almost impossible for a non-suicidal politician to win election without promising still more public “solidarity” and still less individual risk. These welfare states, through their financial cost and the erosion of ethical responsibility that they foster, have smothered economic growth in Europe. We are the continent of decline, albeit decline with solidarity.
At Public Discourse, Acton’s Research Director Samuel Gregg examines why many European governments are so hesitant to engage in much needed but painful economic reforms – especially reforms that involve diminishing the size of expansive welfare states. The causes are many, but in “Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State,” Gregg zeroes in on a potentially damaging linkage between democratic systems of government and the growth of large welfare states that seek to provide economic security to ever increasing numbers of people. Substantive economic reform becomes extremely difficulty in these circumstances. Gregg writes:
No doubt, this reflects a disinclination of many European politicians—on the left and right—to concede that the post-war European effort to use the state to provide as much economic security as possible has encountered an immovable obstacle in the form of economic reality. Yet it is arguable—albeit highly politically incorrect to suggest—that it also reflects the workings of a potentially deadly nexus between democracy (or a certain culture of democracy) and the welfare state.
One justification for democracy is that it provides us with ways of aligning government policies with the citizenry’s requirements and of holding governments accountable when their decisions do not accord with the majority’s wishes. But what happens when some citizens begin viewing these mechanisms as a means for encouraging elected officials to use the state to provide them with whatever they want, such as apparently limitless economic security? And what happens when many elected officials believe it is their responsibility to provide the demanded security, or, more cynically, regard welfare programs as a useful tool to create constituencies that can be relied upon to vote for them?
In recent months, the European social model has been under the spotlight following Greece’s economic meltdown and the fumbling efforts of European politicians to prop up other tottering European economies. To an unprecedented extent, the post-war European model’s sustainability is being questioned. Even the New York Times has conceded something is fundamentally wrong with the model they and the American Left have been urging upon America for decades.
Western Europe’s postwar economies were shaped by an apparent concern for the economically marginalized and the desire to realize more just societies. This inspired the extensive government economic intervention, high-tax rates and generous welfare states now characterizing most contemporary European economies. After 1945, Communists and Christian Democrats alike rallied around these policies. For Marxists, it was a step toward realizing their dream. For non-Marxists, it was a way of preventing outright collectivization.
Even today, words like “solidarity” and “social justice” permeate European discussion to an extent unimaginable in the rest of the world. If you want proof, just switch on a French television or open a German newspaper. The same media regularly contrast Europe’s concern for justice with America’s economic culture. America, many Europeans will tell you, embodies terrible economic injustices in the form of “immense” wealth-disparities, “grossly inadequate” healthcare, and “savage” competition.
But while such mythologies dominate European discourse, it’s also true that Western Europe’s economic culture is characterized by a deeply unjust fracture. Modern Europe is a continent increasingly divided between what Alberto Alesina and Francesco Giavazzi called in The Future of Europe (2006) “insiders” and “outsiders”.
The “insiders” are establishment politicians of left and right, trade unions, public sector workers, politically-connected businesses, pensioners, and those (such as farmers) receiving subsidies. The “outsiders” include, among others, entrepreneurs, immigrants, and the young. Naturally the insiders do everything they can to maintain their position and marginalize outsiders’ opportunities for advancement.
So how do Europe’s insiders maintain the status quo?
Over at Public Discourse, a new article by Acton’s research director Samuel Gregg examines the deeper reasons behind the problems of the euro. In “Europe’s Monetary Sins,” Gregg points out that many of the euro’s present difficulties reflect a basic refusal of Europe’s political class to acknowledge some of the unpleasant economic realities associated with the EU’s social model, as well as a tendency to say one thing while really doing another. In short, Gregg argues that many of Europe’s economic predicaments flow from a crisis of truth, an unwillingness to recognize it, and the subsequent formulation of policy on the basis of untruths and half-truths. The most recent result of this process, Gregg says, is that the independence of the European Central Bank has been severely compromised:
Ever since its foundation in 1998, the ECB has been a whipping boy for European politicians from the left and right who argue that the ECB’s legally mandated priority of maintaining price stability has kept productivity and economic growth rates in the EU far below those of America. In reality, these problems have little to do with monetary policy and everything to do with low rates of entrepreneurship, unsustainable levels of welfare expenditure, an aversion to competition, high rates of public sector employment, and structural rigidities associated with some of the world’s most inflexible labor markets. Indeed, it is probable that the ECB’s avoidance of the low interest-rate policies adopted by the Federal Reserve in the 2000s may have made the 2008 recession in Europe more bearable than it might otherwise have been.
Against considerable political pressures, the ECB has hitherto doggedly defended its independence. All that, however, changed when the European Union decided to set up its 750-billion-euro bailout fund in early May 2010 to stabilize financial markets and rescue the holders of not only Greek government debt, but also, implicitly, the holders of any EU government debts that seemed shaky.
Witnesses said that protestors marching past the building ignored the bank employees’ cries for help and that a handful even shouted anti-capitalist slogans. [ … ] It took a statement from President Karolos Papoulias to best sum up Greece’s dire situation and the frustration that many people are feeling with the political system. “Our country has reached the edge of the abyss,” he said. “It is everybody’s responsibility that we do not take the step toward the drop. Responsibility is proved in action, not in words. History will judge us all.”
Now we have an intelligentsia that is hooked on patron-client exchanges and mediocrity, and a political establishment whose biggest concern is keeping its piece of the pie safe. On the flipside of the same coin we have a culture of protest in which anything goes and which tries to justify every “accident,” like yesterday’s murder of three working people by a hooligan who flipped them the finger when he saw them choking on the smoke of his firebomb. Now that we have succeeded in running the country into the ground, it is time to either rise to the occasion or kneel to the developments. The deal with the IMF and the EU will bring a lot of pain to a lot of people who are not to blame for the situation. We can’t throw money at the problem because we have none.
The chief beneficiaries of the welfare state ethos are the organized interests on whose behalf most government interference with the economy is undertaken. These interests receive the lion’s share of the subsidies which, drawn from general tax revenues or imposed by government-enforced restriction of competition, are our major means for redistributing wealth. As a result, the net effect of government manipulation of the economy is negative for the poor. That is, one clear result of the expansive activism of our expanded government is a lower living stand for the poor.
News reports today on the Greek debt crisis are packed with scary terms like “implosion” and “financial doomsday” and “ebola” and “contagion.” The anxiety has ratcheted up considerably this week, and not just for EU heads of state but also for President Obama. He should be worried. As I pointed out in a previous post, “Die Hard — The Welfare State,” the United States awaits its own day of reckoning for the sins of mounting government debt, a bloated public sector and a lack of political will — by both Democrats and Republicans — to come to grips with the problem. The day of reckoning will come. The only question is when. A roundup:
The financial figures are devastating and, even by the most optimistic forecasts, repaying our debt will be extremely hard. The EU and the IMF are willing to lend us money for 2010, but hesitate to make any commitment for the years to come – first because they also have domestic issues and, second, because they fear they may need an additional 450 billion euros for Spain or Portugal. Moreover, Greek politicians have made a very bad impression on them, so they think that even if Greece were to sign an EU-IMF deal, the risks are high. They see no social and political consensus down the road, nor any sign of professionalism or political will among the political elite.