Commentary Magazine


Fixing Europe: God or Free Markets?

In an interview with Peter Robinson at NRO’s Corner, classicist Bruce Thornton explains why Europe’s fate is sealed by its demographic decline:

“[c]hildren are expensive. They require you to sacrifice your time and your interests and your own comfort. If your highest good is pleasure, if your highest good is a sophisticated life, then children
get in the way. Why would you spend so much money and so much energy on children if your highest good is simply material well-being? That’s sort of the spiritual dimension of the problem.”

Robinson elaborates: “There are so few children in Europe, in other words, because there are so few believers.” Well, possibly. These two factors are regularly mentioned as reasons: We Europeans are hedonistic, self-indulgent and pampered creatures. Having lost our faith in God, we seek instant gratification in the materialistic pleasures of a consumerist existence. We are thus unwilling to make sacrifices to raise children. Few would dispute that career, standards of living, high levels of education, women emancipation and the sexual revolution – some of the results of secularization – have led over the last three decades to a situation where youngsters tend to marry much later in life and have less children. And this, no doubt, largely applies to the urban, upper-middle-class segment in Europe—post-national, secular, globalized, trendy, and well-paid.

But there are other reasons, which came painfully to the fore in Italy’s electoral campaign this week, during a television blunder by center-right leader and prime minister-hopeful, Silvio Berlusconi. During a talk show, Berlusconi was asked by a young woman how young couples can hope to build a family given the precarious nature of their job situation. Berlusconi, jokingly, recommended that she should marry his son or someone from the same high income category.

Berlusconi’s suggestion to marry a millionaire might sound like Marie Antoinette suggesting that if French people had no bread they should eat brioche. To be fair, Berlusconi was joking – he went on to elaborate in much more serious ways.

Here is the problem: Given Europe’s labor markets, the nature and costs of Europe’s welfare systems and the standard cost of living in European countries, young people cannot afford to marry until much later in their adult life. If you are a European in your 20’s, it will be hard to find steady employment with reasonable pay. Due to high employer costs resulting from welfare legislation and labor laws (once hired on a regular contract, it is hard and costly to fire you), you are not likely to get anything but underpaid, short-term contracts.

The lack of economic stability for young adults has to do with the bias of a heavily regulated market, where legislation provides entrenched privileges for those who are already in but penalizes those newcomers who are still out. Without a reasonably paid job, you have little chance of getting a decent mortgage to buy a house, you will have no money to pay for much over and above rent and bills, and therefore there is little likelihood to get married and have those expensive kids. The aggregate burden of welfare impacts all sectors and the overall cost of living: Many European singles still live with their parents, and in some countries, like Italy, companies offer lower salaries precisely on the assumption that for a long time their employees will live at home with their parents and therefore minimize their costs. It’s less about God, then, and more about labor laws.

When Berlusconi tried to reform the labor market in Italy during his previous stint as Prime minister, the main author of the reform was gunned down by Red Brigades assassins – a painful reminder of the challenges a free-market economy still faces in Europe. No serious reform was eventually passed.

Adverse labor legislation prevents young couples from bringing children into the world – with or without a God – because though they may want to, they cannot afford it. It is not that young Europeans spend too much in the pursuit of pleasure. Rather, they cannot pay for the high costs of raising a family in Europe until much later in life. Bringing God back to Europe might contribute to a shift in those demographic trends – no doubt, Islamists would concur in principle even if they differ on which god to restore – but it seems just as effective to advocate a liberalization of the labor market. After all, it is simpler to legislate liberalization than to legislate faith. Allowing Europeans in their 20’s and just out of college to enter the job market more easily and with better rewards – even as they do so with more risks – would be more effective than relying on a return of God to Europe.

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