Virtue in the people

These words are from Madison.  They summarize neatly what this blog is about:  the two-way traffic between freedom and morality.  They also pose a question about how to interpret recent events in Europe.

Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party has just suffered a devastating defeat in North Rhein-Westphalia, the country’s most populous state and one the SPD has owned for 39 years.  Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, in an unusual move, has called for early general elections, this fall instead of the scheduled date in 2006.

In France, meanwhile, most polls show a narrow edge for the non vote on the EU constitution, coming up 29 May.  President Chirac has invested his prestige and wagered his political future on ratification of the constitution, yet as with Schroeder, his support may be the very reason for its defeat.  And if the constitution goes down, the EU’s future becomes a huge question mark.

What are we to make of all this?

One way is to see it through an American lens.  Here, Schroeder and Chirac were derided as the “axis of weasels,” and for good reason.  They fanned anti-Americanism in Germany and France for political gain, and opposed the U.S. in Iraq far beyond the point of a disagreement among friends.  But more:  they clearly saw their countries as standing for something qualitatively different from the “Anglo-Saxon” way of life, and themselves as leaders of a kinder, more humane, wholly secular “social Europe.”

That their geopolitical power was meager, that their economies were drifting downward, troubled these two men not at all.  They offered token gestures of reform, but in all big things hunkered down with the status quo.

So the case can be made that, in Germany, the electorate has decided to dismantle Schroeder’s SPD-Green political Jurassic Park.  In the state election, the conservative parties received a clear majority.  The leftist alternatives to the SPD lost ground.  The bloody flag of anti-Americanism was waved before the vote, and failed to move.  The people of Germany may well have reflected on the stagnation of their economy, with the largest number of unemployed since before World War II, and decided on change.

Similarly, the French may well find the 600-page EU constitution impossible to swallow for good republican reasons.  Etienne Chouard lists ten of those reasons, all persuasive to an American reader, my favorite among which is:  “A constitution must be readable before a popular vote is allowed:  the text of this one is unreadable.”

The surrender of nationhood, the prospect of rule by hyper-bureaucrats, the meager aspirations to “sustainable development” and a “social market economy,” may disgust a people who once considered themselves the vanguard of liberty in the globe.  If the French vote no, anti-Americanism as a vote-getting device will once again have failed.

That’s the cheerful interpretation.  The Germans will abandon dinosaurian socialism.  They will reform their economy, which will once again become the locomotive of Europe.  The French will opt for France rather than Brussels, open-air clarity rather than 600 pages of opaque regulatory claustrophobia.  Both countries will, if not exactly kiss and make up with us, at least cease to define themselves by their opposition to our “hegemony.”

Unfortunately, another interpretation is possible, which posits much less virtue in the peoples involved.  In every democracy, the voters much choose between long-term interests and short-term desires.  The contrary case can be argued that, in Germany, the voters punished Schroeder because he wasn’t Jurassic enough.  His reforms, marginal as they were, offended the electorate’s aggressive desire for stasis.  The large number of unemployed are still a minority of the voting population:  those who have, don’t wish to share.

The next six months, as the country staggers toward elections, will see a frenzied assumption by the left of ever more extreme postures, including anti-Americanism on the geopolitical and economic fronts.  If this is how matters develop, the Germans will have sold their birthright, and their children’s, for a mess of potage.

In France, the opposition to the constitution is led by a bizarre alliance of socialists, Trotskyites, hard nationalists, and people who might best be described as frightened and confused:  not a good indicator of virtue among the non crowd.  The chief argument against the constitution seems to be that it is too “Anglo-Saxon,” though the idea of Americans or Englishmen considering, even for a minute, such a bloated governing document, is comical.  The French may see any change as threatening.  Chirac is himself a bloated governing entity, open to criticism from many directions, but as with Schroeder his punishment may result from having done too much rather than too little.

If the French vote no, in this scenario, we can expect the country’s political pathologies to assert themselves:  government bribery in the form of subsidies, labor blackmail in the form of strikes, narrow personal and sectarian interests taking hold everywhere, with  possibly a veneer of anti-Americanism, shared by all, to provide the illusion of unity.  The interesting question is whether the outcome will be different with ratification.

Which way will it go?  I am not in the prophecy business:  I don’t have a clue.  The stakes for Europe, as has been noted with a touch of despair, are immense.  The past performance of this generation of Europeans hasn’t been encouraging.  In any case, the political issues and parties contesting power in both countries are of secondary importance.

If the citizens of Germany and France wish to sacrifice their children for the desires of the moment, no plan or policy can help them.  Equally, if those citizens seek to enlarge their sphere of freedom and to transcend selfishness, their countries may indeed rise to compete, happily and healthily, with the United States.

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