In normal circumstances, people in Britain would have viewed the riots in Athens with a certain disdainful amusement: those excitable Mediterraneans at it again! What else can you expect, really? But thanks to Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Britain is now the Greece of the North Sea; he has turned the healthiest public finances in Europe into the sickest, with a budget deficit as large as Greece’s (and soon to be much larger) and a public debt that will before long exceed 100 percent of GDP. So when we look at what is happening in Athens, we have the eerie sensation that this might be London a few weeks or months hence. We have seen our future, and it riots.
In fact, Greece is only a particularly acute or virulent case of the sickness that afflicts much of the Western world. Greece’s overall debt is higher, no doubt, and its deficit larger, than those of other countries, but the difference is one of degree, not of kind. Like most of the rest of us, the Greeks have been living beyond their means.
When the crowd tried to storm the Greek parliament, shouting, “Thieves! Thieves!,” its anger was misdirected. It was a classic case of what Freudians call projection: the attribution to others of one’s own faults. It is true that the Greek politicians are much to blame for the current situation, and no doubt many of them are thieves; but their real crime was not stealing, but offering a substantial proportion of the Greek population a standard of living that was economically unjustified, maintained for a time by borrowing, and in the long run unsustainable, in return for votes. The crime of that substantial proportion of the Greek population was to accept the bribe that the politicians offered; they were only too prepared to live well at someone else’s expense. The thieves were not principally the politicians, but the demonstrators.
Such popular dishonesty is by no means confined to Greece. In varying degrees, most countries in the West have displayed it, Britain above all. It is perhaps an inherent problem wherever the universal franchise is unaccompanied by widespread virtues such as honesty, self-control, providence, prudence, and self-respect. Greece is therefore a cradle not only of democracy, but of democratic corruption.
The Greek demonstrators did not understand, or did not want to understand, that if there were justice in the world, many people, including themselves, would be worse rather than better off, and that a reduction in their salaries and perquisites was not only economically necessary but just. They had never really earned their wages in the first place; politicians borrowed the money and then dispensed largesse, like monarchs throwing coins to the multitudes.
It is an obvious but often forgotten lesson of economics: what cannot continue will not continue.