Much as the civil disorder spreading in Greece must disturb law-abiding people everywhere, it’s not all that difficult to understand. It stems from dashed expectations and broken promises.
For at least a generation, Greek governing coalitions, regardless of their stated ideologies, promised their citizens that government would provide them with jobs, housing, health care, and every other perk of a middle-class life. The austerity measures recently approved by Greece’s parliament violate that promise and, like just about anyone whose trust is violated, many Greeks have gotten angry.
This provides guidance for the United States and every country that faces a tough fiscal situation: Social disorder happens not because of austerity measures, but because of broken promises.
After all, many places with serious fiscal problems have not suffered civil disorder. Ireland faces a financial crisis nearly as severe as Greece’s, but even enormous street protests – the biggest one drew 120,000 people from of a total population of around 4.5 million – have remained peaceful. The centrist/nationalist party that oversaw most of Ireland’s “Celtic Tiger economy” and subsequent decline, for all its serious errors, never promised its people much more than a freer, riskier economy.
Likewise, Orange County, California outright defaulted on its debt in 1994 and cut public spending afterwards, but suffered only minimal protest, in large part, because core services such as schools and law enforcement remained roughly the same as they were before.
Finally, although very deep cuts in many categories of spending coupled with continuing slow growth have made David Cameron’s coalition government unpopular in the United Kingdom, only one small protest over student fees has turned violent there. Like Orange County, the Cameron government has kept basic services in place and actually increased the National Health Services’ budget (a true core service in the U.K. since it is literally the only provider of health care in many cases).
Whatever pain has stemmed from austerity measures, these governments didn’t take away things people thought they were promised. The places that have seen serious unrest like Greece’s – Iceland (where self-proclaimed, free-market governments promised citizens both wide-open capitalism and lavish social benefits) and Portugal (where parties of the Left and Right made promises similar to those made in Greece) – are full of politicians who promised things they simply couldn’t deliver.
This is a warning to both the Left and the Right in the United States.
The advice to liberals is obvious: Don’t even think about building a European-style welfare state. Even if one possesses an abiding confidence in the ability of the public sector to improve society, top-down bureaucratic measures that involve absolute promises from the government have run into very serious problems almost everywhere. A continuing series of pledges that the government will take care of every possible human need – which, given the current budgetary woes of the Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security programs, simply can’t be kept in the long run – will mean disaster and, quite possibly, Greek-like unrest.
Conservatives also run a risk of over-promising. The House Republican-passed plan to restructure Medicare has enormous merit in its broad outline – seniors should be empowered to pick their own health care programs – but it relies on many ideas that haven’t been tried before on a large scale, and it remains unpopular according to opinion polls. Thus, proponents of the plan should be careful not to promise, as some conservative leaders have done, that the reform will reduce unemployment to levels not seen since World War II and bring about massive growth in wages that have been stagnant for a decade.
The best way for politicians to sell austerity measures is the one that has worked best around the world: Be clear about what you’re trying to achieve, and keep the promises that voters believe you or your predecessors have made. Doing anything else is a bad idea at best, and it very often leads to civil unrest.
Eli Lehrer ([email protected]) is vice president of Washington, DC operations for The Heartland Institute and national director of its Center on Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate.
(This piece was published in the Orange County Register on July 14, 2011.)