Conrad Black: 2012: The Economic Choices

Roundup: Historians' Take

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at

The latest round of euro-jitters emphasizes the unimaginative contest between the advocates of austerity and the quantitative easers. But while the consequences of the application of alternative economic measures are often unpredictable, the wellsprings of economic woes are not usually hard to find. In the present problems, the same difficulties afflict Europe and the United States, though in different degrees. It is entirely inappropriate for the U.S. government, with its unspeakable extravagance and anemic and fragile recovery, to lecture Europe or anyone, except perhaps Zimbabwe and Argentina, about national economic management.

The entire welfare system of the West was established in the ambition of avoiding another economic disaster on the scale of the Thirties, with the resulting political instability and the (unspoken but vivid) consequent fear of the rise of political extremism and the outbreak of international conflict. Europe, particularly, has a very long and terrifying history of mob rule when placebos aren’t regularly distributed to the working and agrarian classes, and the largest Western continental European countries — Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland — all have bloodcurdling heritages of internecine strife in living memory and for many centuries before that, “forever and ever,” in the words of the Christian liturgy.

The levels of social safety, ranging from a somewhat threadbare net in parts of the United States to a luxuriously upholstered hammock in France and parts of Scandinavia, were set when assumptions of birth rates and life expectancy were much different from the facts today. The sharp decline of the birth rate and heartening increase in life expectancy in all of these countries have ensured that, even without the increases in benefits against the electoral temptations of which our political classes have been resistless, all Western countries will go bankrupt without course corrections.

All human nature’s less commendable impulses seem to be accentuated and more frequently encountered in our politicians, perhaps inevitably when they depend on the endorsement of a plurality, and in this long-impending crisis we have seen all the obvious evasions of what is essentially a budgetary problem formulated in the terms of Grade Five arithmetic. First, there was the pretense that it wasn’t happening, and that the figures would reverse. How they would reverse, short of engaging in widespread, drumhead euthanasia, was never clear, and it didn’t happen. Then there was the expedient of immigration, which led to the Islamic threat in Europe and the abrasions of tens of millions of undocumented Latin Americans in the United States (a problem aggravated by inexplicable decisions to make the U.S. less accessible to its most assimilable, traditional, and objectively desirable sources of immigration, especially Europe)....

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