Magazine | December 31, 2010, Issue

Requiem for a Scheme

The young of Europe should protest their elders’ profligacy

Young people in Europe are right to be angry; but, like love, anger is often misdirected. So it is in this case: for the young rioters are angry not at those who constructed the giant Madoff scheme that is the European social model, but at those who, because of financial force majeure, have now to dismantle it, in part if not in whole, and will therefore prevent young people’s full participation in it. What they want is for everything to remain the same, clearly an impossibility.

The angry young people, not unnaturally, want the same privileges that their parents awarded themselves in the high-minded name of social justice, on the live-now-pay-later principle. Why should they, the younger generation, have to live harder, more arduous, less secure lives than their elders lived? If their parents enjoyed free education, secure employment with guaranteed holidays and sick pay, and early retirement with generous unfunded pensions linked to the rate of inflation — what the French call les acquis — why should not they? Is not an ever-rising standard of living, with more and more entitlements and holiday destinations within the reach of all, the fundamental law of the universe, to say nothing of the meaning of life?

Compared with many Western European politicians, Madoff was an honorable man, for he solicited, rather than coerced, the contributions of which he was the principal beneficiary. European politicians were able to use the full force of the law to shore up their Madoff schemes. But European populations were not innocent in the whole vast fraud: They voted for the people who, they thought, were offering them something for nothing, or rather for nothing for which they would have to pay; the bill would fall to future generations to settle. Après nous le déluge ceased to be the cynical bon mot of a prince of the ancien régime: It became the whole of government policy.

Unfortunately, the first (but not the last) waves of the great deluge are upon us now, sooner than expected.

That the scheme of the welfare state was in essence improvident if not outright criminal was known from the very first. The British Labour politician for long revered in some quarters in Britain as the founder of the National Health Service, Aneurin Bevan, famously or infamously boasted that the great thing about the National Insurance Fund (from which various benefits were to be paid the sick, the unemployed, and the retired) was that “there ain’t no fund.” Payments were thus to be met from current tax receipts, which, if insufficient, were to be augmented by borrowing. Bevan gloried in the improvidence because he knew that it would change once and for all the relationship between the citizen and the state, increasing enormously the power of the political class and its bureaucratic clientele. It would destroy saving for a rainy day as the personal source of security, replacing it with dependence on the government. A strong government needed a feckless population, and — certainly in the case of Britain — got it.

#page#For years it has been clear that there is no means by which the state can meet its increasing self-assumed obligations without large-scale borrowing. The cost of meeting the obligations has stifled the economic growth that is the only way they could have been met without a Madoff scheme. France, by no means the worst offender, has managed to balance its budget three times in the last 40 years. In other words, borrowing is our way of life, and in some cases (that of Greece, for example) it might even be said to be our livelihood.

Among the benefits offered by the state was costless education: that is to say, education that appeared to cost nothing to those receiving it. And since education is obviously a good thing, the more such costless education that was offered to the population, the more generous, concerned, compassionate, and forward-thinking the state and its directing politicians appeared to be. The population fell for it, hook, line, and sinker.

A strange, but not really unpredictable, thing happened: As the state offered more and more education, its average quality declined. For the first half of the 20th century, Britain, for example, was one of the two most fertile countries in the world for ideas in chemistry, as measured by the rate of award of Nobel prizes in that discipline, if not necessarily by the output of its chemical industry. But with the vast expansion of state education in Britain, chemistry as a discipline almost ceased to exist; the greatest academic activity in that subject became the closing of departments.

In his latest novel, the French writer Michel Houellebecq has one of his characters, a teacher of economics in a French university, describe her activity as teaching “des absurdités contradictoires à des crétins arrivistes,” a phrase that hardly needs translation, and that clearly represents the author’s view. But the economics faculties are among those that have expanded the fastest, along with others that, if expanded beyond any real need for graduates of them, become parasitic on the body economic.

In Britain, it was typical of the Bambi-Leninism of Tony Blair that he should have made it a goal of his government that 50 percent of young people should attend universities, all but two or three of which are wholly state-run institutions — with the natural consequence that the education they received was of value neither intellectually nor vocationally, and meant that the jobs they would eventually find after graduation were those that any school dropout aged 15 or 16 could have done, quite possibly better, 50 years ago.

But the economic necessity of a university degree increased pari passu with its intellectual uselessness, the absence of a degree being virtually an open confession of deficient intelligence. A degree was therefore both vital and redundant, a miraculous compound of qualities brought about by an education system that now offers no real chemistry. Moreover, students often had to go into debt or sponge off their parents to obtain a degree. Tertiary education became the means by which the government was able to disguise the extent of youth unemployment; it was a mere tool of propaganda.

#page#It cannot yet be said that the house of cards has fully collapsed, but it is in the process of collapsing. Governments are being left with few options but to retrench. During World War II, posters used to ask the population, “Is your journey really necessary?” in an attempt to get it to save fuel; now, with increased university fees, students are being asked, “Is your degree really necessary?” Suddenly, they must consider whether the value is equal to the cost, a question that they would prefer to ignore. In an astonishingly short time, they have come to demand a university education for the same reason that the mountaineer George Mallory gave for climbing Everest: “because it’s there.” (Mallory died on Everest, of course.) A university education has become a right, and therefore others have a duty to provide it. The students therefore see only the retrenchment, not the profligacy that made it inevitable, and they are furious.

As Latin American countries found to their cost, hell hath no fury like a thwarted lumpenintelligentsia (guerrilla movements in Latin America were the result of the expansion of universities, not peasant discontent). The discontented educated — or at any rate those who believe themselves entitled to the perquisites of education — are more dangerous as a social group by far than the truly desperate, who may safely be ignored, and now that we send 50 percent of our children to university we are left with a potential for real disruption. The baby boomers are reaping what they have sowed.

Agitators will be able to fish in troubled waters. Many Britons have been given a pleasant frisson of righteous indignation by the sight of Charlie Gilmour, the son of David Gilmour — one of Britain’s new aristocracy, pop stars who retire to the remnants of the traditional way of life that their music did so much to destroy — climbing on the Cenotaph, the country’s principal war memorial, and hanging from the national flag, in protest against the rise in tuition fees. Gilmour is a student of history at Cambridge, so he has probably heard of World Wars I and II; it is difficult not to believe, therefore, that he chose the Cenotaph — with its large and clearly inscribed words “The Glorious Dead” — as the site of his protest precisely for its symbolic significance, though he later made an abject, if not wholly believable, apology for his action.

It is implausible that Gilmour is really, truly against privilege, that he wants to reap no personal benefit whatever from his father’s fortune of $125 million. It is only appropriate, then, that he should join in the student demonstrations that are designed to preserve unaffordable privileges.

But the students are right to be angry at their parents’ and grandparents’ generations, who have lived so well at their expense.

– Mr. Daniels is the author of Utopias Elsewhere and other books.

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