Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph and Francis Cianfrocca in the New Ledger have must-read analyses of the Euro crisis. Evans-Pritchard’s essay resists easy summary, but it makes the broad and depressing point that, in Europe, the left has offered a more persuasive analysis of the crisis than the center-right.
Indeed, when the German left praises Britain for staying out of the Euro and argues that the Euro only worked as long as it did because Germany held its labor costs down and recycled the capital from its export surpluses to buy Club Med debt, it is making a dangerous amount of sense. Of course, there are plenty of conservative economists in the U.S. saying much the same thing. But as Evans-Pritchard implies in passing, the failure of the European center to acknowledge the obvious poses a serious danger to its political legitimacy.
Cianfrocca develops the point: the risks here are not simply financial or narrowly politically. They are to the lives and the expectations of millions of Europeans (and, indeed, of Americans). Fundamentally, therefore, as he puts it, the risk is to the “perceived legitimacy of current European governments.” Cianfrocca’s point is that governments have promised something — prosperity for ordinary workers, regardless of whether their productivity merits it — that they cannot deliver, because the “state simply doesn’t control the levers that lead to robust production of economic value.” In other words, they’ve written a naked call option on prosperity.
All too true. But the problem is even deeper than that. It’s not just governments that are at risk. For more than a hundred years, Europe has used social welfare as social protection. But the European center was not buying legitimacy for the governments, narrowly considered. The center was buying it for the state itself, against the extreme left. The extraordinarily inventive Bismarck created the modern welfare system to head off, as he hoped, the threat from the socialists. Of course, like every other government, he also drew on nationalism to build up a viable, non-revolutionary — though in his case not fully democratic — body politic. That wasn’t cynicism (well, maybe for Bismarck it was). It was statecraft of a high order, precisely because it was based on the recognition that modern, participatory politics must be based on a cohesive national identity.
The problem was that after World War II, nationalism lost much of its legitimacy. It survived in the U.S. and Britain, which won the war, and France, which pretended it did, and of course nationalism didn’t disappear elsewhere. But most of the European states were relegitimated not by nationalism, or by religion but rather against the extremes on the right and left by the creation of welfare systems. Instead of promising that you could belong, the European states promised that you would get along. That worked well during the post–World War II boom. But while the boom was temporary, the promise was permanent. Unfortunately, as Cianfrocca points out, the state can’t deliver on it.
Apart from its economic failings, the European solution to the problem of legitimacy was therefore deeply unwise politically. And as Evans-Pritchard points out, too much of Europe is still investing in failure. This was brought home to me last week when a group of young Europeans visited the Heritage Foundation. None of them could grasp why conservatives in the U.S. had any qualms at all about ObamaCare. As one of them put it, “But in Europe, all the conservatives would support it!” Quite so. That is the problem. The state in the U.S. doesn’t need to buy legitimacy: it has 1776. The more the center in Europe invests in the idea that it can buy legitimacy, the deeper the financial and political hole it digs — and ultimately, as Evans-Pritchard argues, the more power it gives to left.