Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Death of God and the Death of Man

Samuel Gregg of The Acton Institute has a good analysis of why democracy can be incompatible with liberty in "Fatal Attraction: Democracy and the Welfare State" published at Public Discourse. It all depends on whether the democracy is restrained by virtue in the people or not. He begins with a summary of the increasingly difficult situation in Europe:

A week, it is often said, is a long time in politics. Much, however, can change in a year. Only a short while ago some European politicians were touting the European social model’s superiority over what many continental Europeans deride as “Anglo-Saxon capitalism.” Now, however, governments across Europe are scrambling to avoid the fate of Greece. Moreover, they are doing so by contemplating—and, in some cases, implementing—the hitherto unthinkable: reducing their budget deficits by diminishing the expansive welfare states to which many Europeans have long been accustomed.

In doing so, these governments are finally acknowledging a truth initially obscured by the crisis of the euro: that for all the disarray generated by the euro’s recent tribulations, Europe’s economic woes have more systematic causes.

One cause is several decades of low economic growth. As the Czech president Václav Klaus recently observed, “average annual economic growth in the eurozone countries was 3.4 percent in the 1970s, 2.4 percent in the 1980s, 2.2 percent in the 1990s and only 1.1 percent from 2001 to 2009.” “A similar slowdown,” Klaus added, “has not occurred anywhere else in the world.”

A second problem is Europe’s profound demographic decline. On current projections, for example, Spain’s over-65 population is set to increase from its present level of 17 percent to 25 percent by 2030. That means fewer people working to support growing numbers of pensioners.

When low economic growth and declining demography are combined with European welfare states—generous state-provided health and unemployment insurance; early retirement and liberal state pensions; large public sector employment; legislation that emphasizes job security over labor market flexibility—something eventually has to give. Greece has reached that point. The rest of Europe is struggling to avoid following Greece into the abyss.

Gregg notes de Tocqueville's warning about "common opinion" being the dominant power in democracies.
The problem, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America, is that public opinion, especially what he called “common opinion,” is “the dominant power” in democracies. The contemporary French philosopher Pierre Manent goes even further to claim that in democracies “it is not dogma that comprises shared opinion; it is shared opinion that is dogma.” It follows that if enough people want expansive welfare programs in a democracy, the capacity for politicians to oppose, for example, the desire of 51 percent of the population to progressively loot the other 49 percent, is limited. To resist is to court electoral rejection or, as we have seen, rioters running amok in the streets of Athens.
Various constitutional remedies have been proposed, as Gregg notes, but they cannot restrain the unbearable temptation that is posed to politicians by the prospect of expanding the welfare state:
The bartering of privileges and grants to different groups is thus almost inevitable in a democracy if a government wants to retain its coalition of support. In these circumstances, expanding the welfare state to reward particular adherents is a difficult temptation to resist. As Röpke commented: “To expand the welfare state is not only easy but it is also one of the surest means for the demagogue to win votes and political influence, and it is for all of us the most ordinary temptation to gain, at no cost to ourselves, a reputation for generosity and kindness.”
But Gregg does not conclude that democracy must be given up in order for the welfare state to be reigned in before it drags the entire country down into chaos, rioting and violence. How can it be done?
The beginning of a proper response is to recognize that a democracy’s ability to resist the long slouch towards the soft despotism of the welfare state requires two things. The first is to shift the incentives for economic mobility and security so that they lie in the private sector rather than in becoming a recipient of state largesse. This task is very difficult when much of the population already enjoys some measure of state income. Yet it is dwarfed by the immensity of the second challenge: developing a moral and political culture which underscores the undesirability of politicians and citizens using the state to live at others’ expense.
The second challenge named by Gregg is the key. In my opinion, Europe's post-Christian secularism is infantile and enervating; it is insufficient as the basis for a culture of dynamism and life. But without a religious soul, the body politic is sick unto death and this is Europe's dilemma: repent or die - quite literally.

Gregg is quite right to affirm that the EU need not repeat the long, slow, sad, decline of the old USSR. There are democratic alternatives to decline and we see them in the contemporary United States of America, where Christianity is still showing signs of life and vigor. The most important commonality between the old USSR and the contemporary EU is one that most economists and political theorists dismiss as irrelevant, but which is actually of crucial importance: their atheism. John Paul II knew that economics and politics follow culture and that the Marxists were wrong to think it was the other way round.

Europe's problem is that it lies in the grip of the culture of death and that belief the death of God always leads to the death of man.

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