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.
Even before the revolt of the non-workers, “austerity” was more honored in the breach. Readers who deplore Boehner and Romney as RINO squishes should see what passes for “conservative” in Europe. Whatever principles Sarkozy appeared to have if only by comparison with the cynical old roué Chirac were long fled by the time of his reelection campaign. France hasn’t balanced a budget since de Gaulle’s successor, M. Pompidou, died in office (for American historians, that’s back in the Partridge Family era). Government spending accounts for 56 percent of the economy — and, if you take into account all unfunded liabilities, French debt totals 549 percent of GDP (in Europe, second only to Greece’s 875 percent). And yet, in the age of “austerity,” every single presidential candidate was running on an economic platform that would increase those numbers.
The “extreme right” Marine Le Pen of the “far right” National Front? Oh, if only. They don’t like immigrants, but in every other respect they’re to the left of the incoming socialist. You’d be surprised how many of Europe’s alleged “extreme right” parties that applies to: These “right-wingers” are culturally protectionist and economically protectionist, or, if you prefer, culturally nationalist and economically statist — like the old British Labour party and most conventional left-of-center Continental parties were before they got the Eutopian fever. Now they’ve abandoned that market segment to fellows like Greece’s hilariously named “Golden Dawn” party, which won 21 seats on a platform blaming the country’s current woes on the Industrial Revolution, the “so-called” Enlightenment, and foreign “usurers.” Usury is customarily understood as the practice of charging excessive interest. Golden Dawn, like most Greeks, feels the Germans and the EU and the IMF should carry on lending them money but at no interest. No, wait, forget the lending: They should give it.
Nationalist politics on transnationalist welfare does not sound an obviously winning formula. But we’ll see more of it before Europe’s done. In the first round of the French election, Marine Le Pen got 18 percent to M. Sarkozy’s 27. What is it that makes one a “fringe” “extremist” and the other “mainstream”? Nine points? Well, she’ll close that gap in the years ahead. In response, a beleaguered political class will attempt to shift its spending to a European level: Joining the EU’s foreign minister and the nascent EU diplomatic corps there will be an EU finance minister and EU bonds and EU taxes. It will be even more unsustainable, but for the Eurocrats transnational unsustainability will be perceived as being more comfortably insulated from the whims of their “citizens.” Where, after all, would one go to vote down a “European” tax?
So back at the dreary national level there will be more parties like Greece’s Golden Dawn and Bulgaria’s Ataka (National Attack Union), whose official logos slyly evoke the swastika while bending this or that prong just enough to preserve deniability. Which seems fair enough, as Greek “nationalism” is premised on the Germans’ ability to fund it.
Meanwhile, youth unemployment in France is already 22 percent; Sweden, 23 percent; Poland, 27 percent; Hungary, 28 percent; Ireland, 30 percent; Bulgaria, 33 percent; Slovakia, 34 percent; Portugal, 36 percent; Italy, 36 percent; Greece, 51 percent; Spain, 51.1 percent. For this generation, there will be no Golden Dawn — but I wouldn’t rule out an Ataka. The aging beneficiaries of the Eutopian moment may be disinclined to give any of it back. Sooner or later, their successors will take it.
– Mr. Steyn blogs at SteynOnline (www.steynonline.com).