Libertarians Fail to See Welfare State

While the talks between the EU and the Greek government has bought the euro a little bit more time, there is a growing undercurrent of a debate over the European crisis. More writers are trying to put their finger on where Europe is going and what the continent needs. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, looks at demographics and points to some of the deeper social and cultural problems that plague Europe:

[A] country or continent will be in decline if it rejects the culture of family, turns its back on work, and closes itself to strivers from the outside. Europe needs visionary leaders and a social movement to rediscover that people are assets to develop, not liabilities to manage. If it cannot or will not meet this existential challenge, a “lost decade” will look like a walk in the park for Grandma Europe.

There are reasons why a country turns away from family, work and social, demographic and cultural reproduction. Those reasons are closely tied to self determination: when people are demoted from independent individuals to subjects of the welfare state, their desire to assume responsibility for a family weakens accordingly. When government uses economic incentives to steer people toward certain life choices, and away from others, people become less inclined to participate in the reproduction of the society they inherited. They are happy to hand that responsibility over to government – precisely along the lines of the incentives that government has created.

In other words, when government has social-engineering ambitions the consequences of its incursions into the private lives of its citizens reach far beyond what government planners initially would anticipate. Collectivization of people’s daily lives destroys much more than just the economy.

The welfare state is the collectivization vehicle that rolls all over the values that formed the foundation of Western civilization. Proponents of individual and economic freedom chronically under-estimate the destructive force of the welfare state, both short-term and long-term. Brooks represents the view that the welfare state, over its long-term existence, is somehow isolated from the cultural and social traditions and institutions of a society.

The short-term perspective and under-estimation of the welfare state is well represented by former Polish deputy prime minister Leszek Balcerowicz. In the Fall 2014 issue of the Cato Journal, Balcerowicz offers a refreshing explanation of the crisis that caused the Great Recession. After initially attributing the crisis in the so called PIIGS countries to the financial sector, he develops a productive narrative of the crisis where the financial and fiscal sectors interact:

  • In one direction the crisis causality runs from the financial sector to the fiscal sector – “fiscal-to-financial” by Balcerowicz’s terminology – when “sustained budgetary overspending … spills over ito the financial sector, as financial institutions are big buyers of government bonds”;
  • In the other direction the crisis causality runs “financial-to-fiscal”, which Balcerowicz exemplifies with Ireland and Spain: “The spending boom in the housing sector fueled the growth of their economies and created a deceptively positive picture of their fiscal stance”.

While Balcerowicz is theoretically correct about the quality of the financial-to-fiscal causality, it still remains to be proven that there was enough economic activity at stake to cause such a brutal drop in employment and general economic activity as happened in 2008-2009. Balcerowicz does not offer any deeper insight into the causality, but adopts the narrative that has become the official explanation of how the Great Recession started.

Of far more interest is Balcerowicz’s “fiscal-to-financial” argument. Chronically overspending governments pull banks down with them, especially as the credit ratings of the welfare states start tumbling. I pointed to this in two articles last year, one in April and one in December. I also explain the role of the welfare state behind the crisis in my book Industrial Poverty.

The one point where Balcerowicz stumbles is when to explain why governments chronically overspend. He approaches the problem as a question:

What are the root causes of the tendency of modern political systems to systematically overspend, which results in fiscal-to-financial crises or in chronically ill public finances that act as a brake on economic growth?

He then suggests that the answer to this question “belongs to public choice”. This is an analytical mistake: public choice lacks the methodological power to penetrate the complexity of the welfare state.

Clearly, there is a need for libertarians and other friends of economic and individual freedom to learn how to understand, analyze and politically and legislatively dismantle the welfare state. Without such knowledge they will continue to make near-miss contributions such as the ones by Brooks and Balcerowicz.

But fear not. I have another book coming. Stay tuned.

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