Are you sure you want to be European?

October 20, 2010 05:03

One of the most common misrepresentations of Continental European statism is that it has brought about a “welfare state” that ensures their citizen’s wellbeing, protects them from harm, and improves their living standards.

By Santiago Trillo at The Americano

One of the most common misrepresentations of Continental European statism is that it has brought about a “welfare state” that ensures their citizen’s wellbeing, protects them from harm, and improves their living standards. As a European citizen living in one of the most statist countries in the European Union, I feel entitled –notice the expression, an ironic inheritance from statism- to argue that this is not so.

Common knowledge, though very frequently far from historical fact, admits a brief outline of the history of the modern European nation-states that is mainly a derivative of the post- Revolutionary history of the Ancien Régime in France. Thus, the main characteristics of the Old Order that the current nations in Europe have superseded are:

· Absolutism, where little or no opposition to the ruler’s decrees exists
· Legitimization of power by Divine Right: power is justified, is right, and is for the good of the ruled
· Aristocratic and Church privileges: tax exemptions, appointments, monopolies…
· Taxation of middle and lower classes in order to sustain the living standard and privileges of the upper classes
· Economic mismanagement: waste (war, decorative infrastructure projects, corruption, …), ineptitude (lack of technocrats, backward science, …)
· Unfair justice: government biased courts, upper classes exempt from Rule of Law …
· Cultural monopoly, where culture is decreed by Ruler, artists depend on upper classes for survival leading to conformism to its tastes and appetites, censorship, …
· Misery and destitution for a majority of the population

This oversimplification includes a major psychological transfer: Rulers are deemed as good or bad, then so their Governments are. As Louis XIV of France famously said, “L’État, c’est moi” The absolute ruler acted according to personal interests or personal ethos, and when these were opposed to the well-being of the ruled, oppressive power ensued.

All this changed with the advent of the European State from the late XVIII century, which has been tweaked and polished since then up till the late XX century. It is only some 50 years ago when the European Welfare State graduates in the general mind, and impressively so in academic and intellectual circles, as “the best Government there is”. This change included the transition of the psychological transfer. Government, or the State, was no longer the Ruler. It became some kind of impersonal entity working devoid of interests or ethical conditionings for the good of the governed. Its almost mechanical operation allowed the voters to boast that “L’État, c’est nous”.

It is true that most pre-XIX century nations in Europe had arbitrary Governments that devoted great effort to maintain privileges. But it is also true that current the task of governing is actually performed by people – at least for the time being: individuals who have interests, who have their ethics (or lack of them), and in no way can be termed as “impersonal”, or indifferent to pressure, emotion or affection.

I am afraid that this means that the way Government exerts power has not changed that much in several countries in Continental Europe.

The “checks and balances” so dear to Anglo-Saxons are: the party with the majority in the legislature is usually the party of Government. Thus people from a group with similar interests make the laws, govern, and in not a few cases appoint the judiciary or regulate its appointment. So much for separation of powers. Since this is how the Old Order worked, the transition to the new Statism has been quite unopposed, and almost seamless.

Exercise of Power, is felt now quite different from the coercive Divine Right. But coercive it is. If Government had no power, I wonder how citizens would accept its authority. The justification of this power has become now the “will of the people”, more frequently translated into a “rule of the majority” instead or “rule of no majority”. Governments tend to act as if they have freedom of action after winning an election –as opposed to a mandate to exercise power with accountability. This does not mean that a direct democracy would be a preferred system. It just means that the exercise of Power by the Government may still be practiced with the same relentless vehemence as it was exercised in the 1700s. “The people have spoken, I am in charge now!”. Wasn’t this what some absolute monarchs did? Yes, it is human nature.

Privileges remain. Not only do many European countries still have true aristocrats, and not only do modern republican states still confer distinctions and honors as absolute rulers did. This is human nature. But there are new privileges and a new aristocracy that was not expected, nor desired: Government Officials and Politicians. They do not wait in lines, they do not drive average cars (most have drivers and luxury cars), the do not eat a cheap restaurants, at important events there are always reserved seats for Government authorities and Politicians.. Some Government Officials not just work in luxurious Palaces, but actually live in them, just as their XVIII century predecessors. Access to Government Officials, and even to legislative representatives, is extremely difficult, when not outright impossible. And, yes, there are economic privileges and cronyism too: tax exempt remunerations, expensive travel allowances, direct appointments at the will of the Government Official, Government subsidies to political parties and trade unions … Oh, yes: this is human.

As ever more areas of power have been ceded to –or taken over by- Government, so has taxation increased in Western Europe. Taxation is not arbitrary, as it is previously known and is written law. But it can change at the will of the government and the legislature, which tend to be one and the same. Almost all European countries have gone through a myriad of major changes in tax legislation in the last 50 years. Many of these continuous changes are ideologically motivated (“tax the rich”, “exempt home purchases from tax”) and do not respond to finance needs or fiscal adjustments on the Government’s part. Frequent changes limit the citizen’s ability to decide how to spend and invest his savings. This “fiscal instability” surely has had some impact in the development of Continental Europe. It has proven that the Welfare State can only manage its economy in times of economic expansion, and has severe problems to perform the required adjustments in an over-intervened economy when the bust arrives.

Remember Socialist France nationalizing the Banks, or the current flow of subsidies for “Green Energies”? There are technocrats advising Governments on this issues, as there where two centuries ago. But human nature is the same. Now, as then, the will of the Ruler can trump the advice of the expert, as European Governments have the merit of proving periodically. The immense presence of government in the economy, over 50% of GDP in most European countries, has provided ever more room for mismanagement, and the impossibility of micromanaging has in turn led to waste, overspending by paying prices higher than market prices, and unaccountability.

It is a worrying sign that only in 6 of the 25 EU countries do more than 50% of citizens trust the Legal and Judiciary. Justice is not perceived as fair, agile, or defending of citizen rights. And, lest we forget privileges, Politicians and, in some countries, Government Officials have protected legal status: non-liability and inviolability, in some cases for unlimited time. It is the ruled who are easily accountable for breaking the law. You only have to drive through the capital of a European country to come across official cars parked at No Parking sites, or being overtaken by an official car widely over the speeding limits to have a feeling of this. And then try to park at a no parking site or surpass the speed limit yourself and see what happens.

Government has taken over the rule of acting as a Patron of the Arts. This is a long range power: the Ruling Party subsidizes art in the same way as old Aristocrats did, based on conformism with what Government deems to be art, and –human nature is human and it is natural- if the artist is a Government supporter, the better still. Bear in mind what this means: Europeans have delegated to the government the decision on what is culture, what has aesthetic value, what should be preserved for the future. In many cases, obliterating the past, one must say (“restorations” of Roman and Medieval heritage have finally destroyed ancient remains that time had been unable to erase)

The most important change is the most misunderstood one: the “Welfare State”, which is presented as a great European success. There was welfare before the Welfare State, only it was out of Government hands. Guilds provided protection to their members, the first trade unions provided insurance and unemployment protections to workers and assistance to widows, local communities and clubs did the same, many private associations worked to mitigate or improve the fate of the porr … The increase in welfare protection accompanying the development of the Industrial Revolution and the extension of Global Capitalism was a great and successful experiment of how people organize and protect one another in face of adversity. Many of these initiatives were later disparaged as being “charitable” and demeaning the helped one, while not doing enough to prevent and doing too much to assuage the ills of society. Let us for the sake of discussion assume that this is so: does the current European Welfare system do much to prevent the ills it alleviates? Are unemployment benefits provided to prevent unemployment? Are Government pension schemes a tool for preventing poverty in old age? Most entitlements were provided by Government to prevent other actors from influencing the citizens of the state. Unless, of course, one considers Chancellor Bismarck the paradigm of social progress.

The incremental takeover of welfare initiatives by the State resulted in a dilution of the so called “social fabric”: do not worry for the needy; the State takes care of them. Do not be surprised when the needy get mixed with the outright opportunistic, and entitlement becomes entrenched in society even when the need for it disappears, and the spending on it increases dramatically over time. Do not be surprised either when Continental Governments boastfully talk about their increased “Social spending” programs, which most of times only cover the failure of Government to reduce dependency and alleviate the need for Government support.

In believing that the Welfare State is justified because of it avowed aim of protecting citizens from harm and improving living standards, we are making one great assumption: these “good” objectives justify state intervention. The consequence is that we are relaying the power to decide over them to Government. It is absurd then to complain when, faced with a fiscal crisis, and as provider of these services, Government decides to change the rules of the game and cut entitlements, cut public services, and pass on to the citizens the cost of its mismanagement of the economy. This might be the only instances when Europeans become aware of the immense power they have let their Governments take.

It should not come as a surprise then that after so many years of “statism” we Europeans have to accept things such as:

· It is the Government, and not I, who decides to what school my children will go. I could pay for a private school, buy I am already deprived of money I could use to pay for it.
· It is the Government, not I, who decides what doctor I must go to, and what services I can expect from the Public Health System. As above, I can pay for my own private insurance, buy I am already paying for the Public Health System.
· It is the Government, not I, who can decide what I can eat or drink, or what I must do in my own free time. After all, they provide Health Services: if I don’t eat or drink healthy, or if don’t quit smoking, they have the right tell me how to be healthy, deny assistance, or make me pay extra for it.
· It is the Government, not I, who decides at what time of day I may open my business.
· It is the Government, not I, who decides what pension I will have when I retire. Yes, I can contract my own private pension plan, but I am already being deprived of money I could invest on it.
· It is the Government, not I, who decides how I can build my house, and I mean not security issues, but the color of tiles, material of windows, …
· It is the Government, not I, who decides when I can retire from my job.
· It is the Government, not I, who decides what cars I can drive (again, not talking about security issues).
· It is the Government, not I, who decides what books, films … are “good” and what books are “bad”. Expect a further step in this area, in the line of French Cultural Exception, regulating culture supply to ensure citizens consume the “right” class of culture.
· It is the Government, not I, who decides what ideas are “good” or “bad”. This includes European governments dictating the education curriculum, or trying to redefina free speech.
· Etcetera, etcetera …

The European Welfare State is a system of government in which the State is “providing essential services” to citizens. It takes over from the hands of society the delivery of these services stating that they are “common good” or “public services” that must be provided universally. It annuls or strongly limits the ability of society to provide those services. And it rests on the assumptions that everything will keep working in the long term as it is, and that Government is managed by people with excellent ethics and absolutely no personal interests. It rests in utopia. And when crisis happen, reality takes over: the Absolute Monarch has become the Absolute State.

Santiago Trillo is a political analyst.

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