Europe Invented Statist Austerity

In December I took a first look at the European Commission’s “Report on Public Finances”, with the intention of returning to this important document later. It has been almost a month, longer than I expected, but here we are.

In my first review of the report I explained that the strict focus by Europe’s political leadership on government finances has led to a systemic error in their fiscal policy priorities:

Austerity, as designed and executed in Europe, was aimed not at shrinking government but making it affordable to an economy in crisis. The end result was a permanent downward adjustment of growth, employment and prosperity. In order to get their economy out of this perennial state of stagnation, Europe’s leaders need to understand thoroughly the relations between government and the private sector.

This is a kind of prioritization that has guided European fiscal policy for two decades now. Under the Stability and Growth Pact, EU member states in general are forced to adopt a fiscal policy that inherently has a contractionary – austerity – bias. But it is not the kind of austerity that reduces the size of government. It is the kind that tries to shrink a budget deficit in order to keep government finances in good order and save the welfare state from insolvency.

So long as contractionary fiscal policy – austerity – is focused on balancing the budget and saving the welfare state, it won’t reduce the size of government. For that, it takes specifically designed austerity measures. Those measures are indeed possible, even desirable, but they cannot be launched unless government is allowed by its own constitution to prioritize less government over a balanced budget.

Unfortunately, the Stability and Growth Pact does not permit that member states prioritize shrinking government over budget balancing. Instead, the Stability and Growth Pact forces them to always pay attention to deficits and debt, but never worry about running too large surpluses. Part A of the Pact caps government deficits at three percent of GDP and debt at 60 percent of GDP. At the same time, there are no caps on budget surpluses; since a surplus is excess taxation, and since excess taxation drains the private sector for money in favor of a government savings account, this means that governments can drain the private sector for all the money it wants to without violating the European constitution.

Unlike a budget surplus, which is contractionary in nature, a budget deficit is, at least in theory, always stimulative. However, by capping deficits the European constitution restricts the stimulative side of fiscal policy, while at the same time leaving the contractionary end unrestricted.

In addition to the technical aspects of this contractionary bias, there is also the political mindset that is born from a legislative construct of this kind. Lawmakers and elected cabinet members – primarily treasury secretaries – are concerned with avoiding deficits, thus quick to resort to contractionary policy measures, but pay little attention to the need for counter-cyclical policies. Over time, this political mindset becomes “one” with the Stability and Growth Pact to the extent where parliaments do not think twice of passing budgets that impose harsh contractionary measures in order to balance a budget.

Think Europe in 2012. And read chapters 4a and 4b in my book Industrial Poverty to get an idea of how deep roots in Europe’s legislative mindsets that this “gut reaction” bias toward contractionary measures has actually grown.

With its contractionary bias, Europe’s fiscal policy has permanently downshifted growth in Europe. This in turn has perpetuated the budget problems that said contractionary policies were intended to solve. It left the European economy fragile and frail, vulnerable to a tough recession. All it took was the downturn in 2008-09 with its spike in deficits – and once the fiscal-policy gut reaction kicked in, there was nowhere to go for Europe other than into the dungeon of budget-balancing contractionary measures; statist-driven austerity; mass unemployment; and perpetual budget problems.

Never did Europe’s leaders think twice of trying to actually release its member states from the shackles of the Stability and Growth Pact. Never did they think twice of permitting a widespread downward adjustment of the size of government.

The Commission’s “Report on Public Finances” cements this statist approach to contractionary fiscal policy. It has an entire section that suggests further collaboration and coordination among EU member states on the fiscal policy front. So long as the Stability and Growth Pact remains in place, such coordination would be a thoroughly bad idea. All that such coordination would accomplish is to cement statist austerity as the prevailing “fiscal policy wisdom” ruling the economy that feeds 500 million people.

I will return in more detail to this report. In the meantime, do take a minute and read my paper Fiscal Policy and Budget Balancing: The European Experience. It is part of a five-paper series of discussion papers on the ups and downs of a balanced-budget amendment to the United States constitution.

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