Published in The Weekend Australian (Sydney), 12 November 2011
Capital markets are not loquacious storytellers. They condense the world into simple numbers. For this reason, the surge in Greek, Italian and Spanish bond yields could be mistaken for a mere technicality, a simple recalibration between the forces of demand and supply that happens in markets every day.
But these are no ordinary times. Through bond yields, credit spreads and bets on government defaults, capital markets are delivering the clearest possible verdict on the grand European experiment of social democracy.
Italy now needs to pay more than 7 per cent interest on its long-term borrowing, which means investors no longer believe that the country has a future in its present state. They doubt Italy can return from the brink of bankruptcy after wrecking its public finances through decades of overspending and over-borrowing.
Politicians and intellectuals still refuse to understand what is easily discernible on the cold-hearted trading floors of the world’s bond markets: The European social model, the romantic idea of an omnipotent and omni-responsible state, has passed its use-by date.
Ironically, in today’s Europe there are only social democrats left, who face the unenviable task of cleaning up the mess of social democracy.
Almost 30 years ago, in a book published in 1983, the great Anglo-German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf declared the end of social democracy. Not because it had failed but because it had reached all of its traditional goals: “We have all absorbed a few core ideas and made them look self-evident, which define the theme of the social-democratic century: growth, equality, work, reason, state, internationalism.”
The social-democratic program was so attractive that it had been accepted by political parties Left, Right and Centre, argued Dahrendorf. This rendered the original social democrats strangely visionless because they no longer had anything to fight for, at least nothing that would distinguish them from other political parties.
In hindsight, Dahrendorf’s obituary to social democracy came too early because he had underestimated social democrats’ desire to extend the reach of the state. What he also probably did not realise was that, in the 1980s, social democracy had moved beyond workers’ movements to activism in fields such as gender equality, environmentalism and political correctness.
In fact, Europe’s social democracy turned away from its traditional labour roots and replaced them with a new statism of the inner-city elites.
The only constant was social democracy’s unwavering trust in the power of the state to organise the economy and society. Nothing could deter social democrats from their belief in the primacy of politics over economics, not even the giant bill that came with it. Instead of questioning their underlying philosophy, they glossed over its inherent contradictions by running massive deficits.
In one aspect, however, Dahrendorf’s analysis was spot-on. By the end of the 20th century, the once colourful political spectrum had shrunk to a single spot. Political parties may have still called themselves conservative, Christian democrat, liberal or green but in effect they were just different shades of social democrat. A Christian Democrat was just a social democrat who went to church on Sundays; a Greens supporter was a social democrat who recycled their rubbish to perfection; and a Liberal was a social democrat who liked to talk about freedom when it suited them.
In Europe’s political practice, conservatives and social democrats have become virtually indistinguishable. It probably takes a microscope and a PhD in political science to detect the great ideological differences between Tony Blair and David Cameron, or Gerhard Schroeder and Angela Merkel. In reality, there are no differences because they are all varying shades of social democrats.
There are at least two good reasons Europe’s political systems have converged on the social democratic Centre. One is the fallout from the collapse of Soviet communism. The other is the practical constraint: the need to win elections.
When communism collapsed in eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many observers concluded that this marked the triumph of the Western model. Indeed it did. The state-run economies of the East could not keep pace with the mixed economies of the West.
But instead of celebrating the victories of the market economy over planning, Europe’s more conservative parties were left strangely weakened by these events.
Perhaps they naively believed that history had indeed reached its end state, as Francis Fukuyama famously opined. The result was a certain smugness on the part of the political Right, who assumed that the big ideological confrontations were a thing of the past now that Western liberalism had won the battle of the ideology. This was naive because the demise of the Soviet Union in no way diminished the aspirations of the Western social democrats to reform society according to their values.
While the Left was thus busy entrenching the welfare state, the Right made the mistake of not realising that history had never stopped. The demise of the threat of communism made the liberals and conservatives forget what they stood for because they had lost the main threat they once were united against.
The second reason for the convergence of Europe’s political system on the social-democratic centre was that it is here that elections are being lost and won in modern mass democracies. To win a majority of the voters, no politician can afford to move too far from this Centre. And when a large group of the population receives a large part of its income from or through the state, it is no surprise that the political system reinforces this dependence through elections. Consequently, dependence on the state tends to enlarge the state’s activities through time.
Economists have long analysed this phenomenon. Anthony Downs explained it in great detail in his treatise An Economic Theory of Democracy, first published in 1957. He contended that in modern democracies, political parties tried to target the so-called “median voter”. By moving closer to the political centre, left-wing parties could win over some right-leaning voters and vice versa. As a result, left and right parties became more like each other with each election because they were both after the support of the “median voter”.
What sounds very game-theoretical has been Europe’s practical experience. Blair’s New Labour was an attempt to shift the old Labour Party to the Centre. In the same way, Cameron’s repositioning of the Conservative Party only had one goal: to win back the voters in the Centre who had previously been lured over by Blair. No wonder die-hard traditionalists in both parties were equally irritated: old-school Labour supporters because Labour sounded too much like the Tories, and old-fashioned conservatives because Cameron styled himself as the “heir to Blair”. But that was precisely the point of the exercise.
In mixed economies with their large welfare states, the drive to the Centre has made economic reforms all but impossible. Unless circumstances are as dire as after Britain’s 1978-79 “Winter of Discontent” that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, elections can no longer be won by promising radical change.
Merkel had to learn this lesson the hard way. In the 2005 German general election, she ran on a ticket of fundamental free-market reforms. As opposition leader, she promised a complete overhaul of the health system and a fundamental simplification of the complex tax system. One of her key advisers even wondered publicly whether Germany should move towards flat taxes by abolishing the myriad tax breaks that Germans had become used to.
On election day, Merkel was punished for so much courage. In an election thought to be unlosable for the opposition, her party only narrowly won more votes than the social democrats, with whom she was forced to enter into a grand coalition. Merkel learned her lesson and has not talked about anything that remotely looks like an economic reform.
On the contrary, she now talks and acts like the social democrats she once liked to castigate. In her latest U-turn, she supports universal minimum wages (she calls them “lower-wage limits”).
The quest for the often welfare-dependent median voter has turned all parties across Europe into social democratic parties.
Elections in the past have been thinly disguised bidding wars between political operators that turned around the question of who could promise more to the present generation at the expense of generations to come. The bills for politicians’ profligacy were shifted into the distant future. Europe’s politicians became masters in the art of fiscal illusion, always making the costs of their programs appear smaller than they really were.
It is fair to say that European politicians not only managed to fool voters about the true nature of their fiscally unsound policies, but for a long time their reckless policies also escaped the attention of capital markets. Perhaps that was because deficit spending in Europe had been practised for so long that it was regarded as a perfectly normal state of affairs. In any case, Europeans were convinced that state bankruptcies could happen only to hapless Latin Americans or unsophisticated Southeast Asians, not to them.
As Europe’s debt crisis now reveals, that was an arrogant mistake. Like everybody else, Europeans cannot escape the consequences of their actions forever. The day of reckoning for Europe’s previously celebrated social model has come.
This is a rude awakening from the social democratic dreams across Europe, not just in Greece, Spain or Italy. Germany, the self-righteous and self-proclaimed anchor of stability, has an official debt ratio of 81 per cent of GDP, which is still higher than Spain’s. And British politicians, who gleefully look down on the troubled eurozone, can only hope that the debt vigilantes do not turn their attention to Britain’s budget deficit, which is just as bad as Greece’s.
Europe is a continent run by a deeply statist social democratic elite. For decades, they have become used to only enjoying the proceeds of growth. And when that growth was no longer sufficient, they were quick to prop it up by going deep into debt.
In recent months, capital markets have finally – and not a day too late – made it clear to politicians that this is an unsustainable business model for Europe. What must happen next is the painful task of reining in public expenditure, cutting back the state, and freeing the economy so it can recover.
All these tasks are anathema to social democrats. Little wonder that European politicians are going cap in hand to the Chinese rather than tackling their own home-made problems. But whether they like it or not, for lack of any political alternatives, it will be up to Europe’s social democrats of all parties to clean up the mess they have created.