Some years ago in this space, I cited a famous Gerald Ford line he liked to use when trying to ingratiate himself with conservative audiences: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” And I posited an alternative thesis: A government big enough to give you everything you want isn’t big enough to get you to give any of it back.
That’s what the political class of Europe’s cradle-to-grave welfare states have spent the last three years doing: trying to persuade their electorates to give some of it back. Not a lot, just a bit. In France, President Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62. French life expectancy is 80.7, so you still get to enjoy a quarter of your entire human existence as one long holiday weekend. In Greece, where those in officially designated “hazardous” professions such as hairdressing and TV-announcing get to retire at 50, the government raised the possibility of ending the agreeable arrangement by which public-sector employees receive 14 monthly paychecks per annum. They didn’t actually do it but the mere suggestion that Greeks should, like lesser mortals, be bound by temporal reality was enough for the voters to rebel. M. Sarkozy lost to a socialist pledged to restore retirement at 60, and in Greece the government got swept aside not by its traditional opposition but by various unlovely alternatives. The Communist party got 26 seats. Syriza, a “Coalition of the Radical Left” comprising the Trotskyite “Anticapitalist Political Group,” the Maoist “Communist Organization of Greece,” the Goreist “Renewing Communist Ecological Left,” plus various splinter groups too loopy to mention wound up with 52 seats and the second-largest caucus. A month ago, a mere 4 percent of European Union citizens lived under left-wing politicians. But, after a three-year flirtation with “austerity,” the citizenry has decided that a government big enough to give you everything you want suits them just fine, and they’re not gonna give any of it back. Just keep those 14 monthly checks per annum coming (it counts for your government pension, too) until they’re dead. If it bankrupts those left behind, who cares? Not my problem.