Greeks Lurch Left
Acton Institute Powerblog

Greeks Lurch Left

It gets really interesting now in the wake of Syriza’s stunning victory in yesterday’s Greek elections, widely interpreted as a populist rejection of austerity programs that could spread to other indebted European Union basket cases. All eyes on are Alexis Tsipras, the newly-sworn in prime minister (in a highly unusual secular ceremony), with a lot of unanswered questions about how his party will govern. (Syriza is the transliterated Greek acronym for Coalition of the Radical Left). I’ve been following this story – indeed the long gut-wrenching meltdown of the Greek economy – in recent years with more than casual interest. I grew up in a Greek immigrant household and have retraced my grandparents’ steps back to the family villages (I’m what real Greeks refer to as a “two week Greek”).

On the Forbes site, Charles Calomiris paints a picture of what is in store for Greeks if Tsipras follows through on his promises to magically wish away debt (176 percent of GDP), go after “the rich” (Greek shipowners) and give away more free stuff (electrical power, health care, higher minimum wage, etc.) paid for with other people’s money:

… the likely consequences for Greece of Sunday’s election are a chaotic future of bank runs, devaluation, capital flight, and even more worrying, new radical leftist policies to respond to the economic collapse produced by the crisis (e.g., huge expansions of government spending, and nationalizations). Nothing can be ruled out when someone like Mr. Tsipras is in charge – a European version of Hugo Chavez.

Calomiris concludes by observing that “although it is likely that Mr. Tsipras’s victory will soon be regarded as a major electoral error by Greeks, it could be a helpful wake up call for the rest of Europe.”

What can’t be ignored is the real suffering that many Greeks experienced during the long financial crisis. As usual, it was the little guy who got it in the neck, not members of the political and business elites who had profited so long from an entrenched clientelism. In that respect, the two main political parties on both the left and the right who lost the election are equally culpable. Now Tsipras has a chance to break the mold.

Clientelism breeds corruption and in this respect not much has changed despite all of the debt restructurings, bureaucratic reforms, and nibbling around the edges of a bloated welfare state. The Guardian reported in December that:

“Corruption in Greece is alive and well,” said Aliki Mouriki, a sociologist at the National Centre for Social Research. “In fact, if anything, people are now so squeezed they have fewer inhibitions about taking bribes than before the crisis.” The practice of fakelakia, or little envelopes, changing hands was supposed to have been consigned to the dustbin of history when creditors demanded a root-and-branch cleanup of a public system seen as the source of much of the country’s financial ills.

In return for the biggest bailout in global financial history – rescue funds from the EU and IMF amounting to €240bn (£188bn) – it was hoped that old mentalities would change and a nation humbled by near-bankruptcy would finally dump its culture of deceit.

Neither has happened. Instead, with rising poverty and runaway unemployment, malfeasance and mistrust remain widespread. Anti-corruption officials continue to be on the take while the self-employed, not least shopkeepers on popular tourist isles, fail to declare their true income.

Tsipras is fond of declaring the demise of “neoliberalism” which is a leftist code word, I presume, for anything not patently collectivist. “Instead of a Europe that fears unemployment and poverty, instead of today’s Europe that redistributes income to the few and fear to many, instead of a Europe of bankers and capital, we want a Europe of human needs,” Tsipras said early last year.

So how to satisfy all these “needs” in a shrinking economy, with a serious brain drain, capital flight, and a program of alienation of wealth creators and entrepreneurs is not clear. Will the Syriza program also cure corruption and self-dealing, based on Tsipras’ vague but noble sentiments? Is there something embedded in socialism that is morally superior to a system of economic freedom or “neoliberalism”? Perhaps the Venezuelans who can’t find diapers in their socialist paradise could weight in here. No, the morality of the market draws on the morality of the culture, such as it is. In his book A Humane Economy, the economist Wilhelm Roepke observed that “the ultimate moral support of the market economy lies outside the market. Market and competition are far from generating their moral prerequisites autonomously.”

How long will it take Greeks to sour on Tsipras’ empty promises? Or can he somehow succeed with socialist policies that have failed everywhere else?

John Couretas

is Editor-at-Large for the Acton Institute.