In France, the legal retirement age is 60. President Sarkozy, who like every other European leader is desperate to balance the books, proposes to raise this to 62. Hence the scene, as strikers work at bringing the country to a halt, and fill the streets in the time-honoured, Parisian fashion.
Over the Channel, the flashpoint was an attempt by management to lay off 800 employees of the London Underground. Sympathetic unions began an industrial action designed to cripple the city in Monday's rush hour.
The foreground problem is essentially the same everywhere, and in the stimulating spirit of "yes we can," Obama's America is quickly catching up with the European bankruptcy. Here in Canada, we may be feeling rather smug, thanks chiefly to the "no we can't" attitudes of successive federal governments. But our actual fiscal condition is concealed in the federal-provincial cups and marbles: A country that may be technically solvent, consisting of provinces that are all going bankrupt.From what I can see, nothing like the scenes in Athens, recently, but getting there.
The background problem is simplicity itself. The Nanny State has blown the bank. She, or it, has done so everywhere. Even after appropriating half of every national income with taxes both direct and indirect, and after offloading the costs of cumbersome do-good schemes onto businesses through convoluted regulations, Nanny is reduced to printing money.
From the liquidators' point of view, however, the problem is rather more complicated: the debtors are more hostile than the creditors. Thanks to democracy, and the power of "the people," under the inspiration of demagogues, to appropriate each other's wealth, there seems no chance of a smooth disposition.
Our debts have been rephrased as "entitlements." They are the fiscal dimension of "human rights." Everyone has a "right" to a pension, and to much else besides, regardless of whether he put his share into the piggy; or whether Nanny absconded with what he did put in.
Those who prudently saved against the contingencies of this world, have subtly numbered themselves among "the rich." And, "tax the rich" is the received solution. For generations now, "progressive" politicians, imposing "progressive" tax systems, have been making an example of the prudent. The cultivation and manipulation of envy is at the heart of all political schemes for income redistribution, and parties of the Left have been building their client base upon it.
Hence the gradual division of every electorate between the Party of Entitlement, and the Party of Tax Cuts: the one to increase spending, the other to limit revenue, until the gap between income and expenditure has grown to oceanic proportions. In a pinch, the government pulls both ways at once, as poor hapless Obama is now doing because his Party of Entitlement is about to be mooshed in the U.S. midterm elections. In addition to more ruinous "stimulus" spending, he is now promising tax cuts (for everyone but "the rich").
There, as here, the chariot of state is driving over the cliff. In every Western polity of which I am aware, the entitlements are backed with the force of law, and cannot be withdrawn with anything like the ease with which a government can cut the police, the military, and essential public services -- even on paper. Thus, at the moment when fiscal catastrophe strikes, we find the government has already "downsized" the instruments of public order.
I'm still trying to imagine the scenario in which this ends well. (Give me more time!)
The closest thing I can see to hope is currently invested in the tea party movement of the U.S. Notwithstanding the slanders heaped upon it, this movement is good-willed, riot-free, indeed situationally non-urban, and under the leadership of basically sane people. Of course, there is no guarantee that any movement devoted to genuine political change can remain so, under the inevitable provocations.
But something must be done, and here is the closest thing, anywhere in the West, to a political movement committed to the only measure that can possibly save us from riding over that cliff. Merely slowing down won't do it.
That measure is, quite frankly, the complete dismantlement of the Nanny State, and the restoration of the status quo ante -- governments focused on the provision of national defence, and domestically on the machinery of law and order. Full stop.
While that happens to be the only available formula for mitigating our impending economic and social catastrophe -- leave people free not only to earn, but to help each other flexibly and directly -- the issue of freedom itself lies deeper. For the Nanny State isn't, and never was, compatible with the organic development of a free society. We do need laws to be enforced against specific, definable evils. But insofar as we are adults, we have never required comprehensive daycare.