Monday, June 27, 2005

The three challenges of Europe

The troubles the European Union is facing at the moment are crucial in that they represent three of the great dilemmas in the path of western democracy and, increasingly, the world at large: the intrinsic paradox of representative democracy, the role of social values in leftist ideologies and competition in society.

Modern societies are too large for everyone to actually have a personal say in its direction and thus we elect a representative to voice our concern and the one of like-minded people. In this simple picture parliament is the sum of everyone's concerns and no more than that. For this reason there are many unelected bodies (the British House of Lords was a great example before being fed to the mob) because it is understood that there are some issues that are bigger than the sum of everyone's concerns and also that a politician fearful for his reelection might not be brave enough to tackle them.

It is of course a matter of personal opinion what proportion of elected versus unelected bodies should constitute the political structure of a country. One thing that needs to be said immediately, however, is that whatever decision is taken in this matter it is probably not reversible. To turn unelected bodies into elected ones, like franchising new voters, is quite easy, the opposite, like disfranchising, which I do not think was ever attempted in a democracy, is much harder, practically impossible. The baby and dirty water analogy comes to mind at this point.

The European Union for a long time after its conception was very distant from the people. It was an ideal and a concept cherished by many, but the wonderful progress made in terms of trade and administration was carried out very much behind the scenes. Lately, for reasons that are besides our scope, the Union has entered more into the public eye and the policies are dangerously becoming the outcome of simply the sum of the individual voters' wishes. The term greater good has been used so often that it is almost meaningless but nowadays we are about to forfeit what little is left. As time goes by the problem increases as information is more readily available and politics is more and more conducted through opinion polls and tabloid headlines.

To hold the view that voters are fundamentally stupid and politicians should be left to their job is probably wrong or at least extremely patronizing, however to state that voters are fundamentally selfish is certainly less off the mark. Moreover, as Charlemagne noted in this week's issue, a crucial point about the European Union is that it has no force of deterrence (unlike the US federal government) and therefore when individual interests clash with greater goals, there is very little that can be done. The development of this particular issue, how to temper the voters' say with needed reforms should be watched carefully since it is a problem afflicting all type of representative democracies. Because of its nature the European Union has probably more room for experiment than a nation state. May the better direction be taken.

When the powerful bodies that are trade unions were created, the labor landscape was much more uniform. The distinction between capitalists and workforce was well defined; the working classes literally described as such were larger and less varied; heavy industry played a much larger role in industry as a whole. The ideal of a Communist International was probably heartfelt and the phrase “l'oisif ira loger ailleur” out of the anthem was well meant. Industrial actions were taken rarely and after careful consideration: when the steel workers in Italy's “Stalingrad” went on strike in 1943 they did so risking their lives. What happened? Why do we now associate trade unions simply with a group of people that wants to be paid more for working less? Of course the way this question is phrased is provoking, but a similar thought, with a varying degree of cheek, can be read in the mind of many representing a wide political spectrum.

When the French are afraid of being invaded by Polish plumbers, what happened to the international brotherhood of workers straddling national borders? One can argue that even in the golden days of unions, when the miners went on strike they forbade whoever wanted to work to do so. However the difference is that now unions of this sort represent less and less of the population and more crucially they are higher up the social ladder which tends to take some of the moral mantle away. The real have-nots are increasingly non unionized. Unions are becoming more like corporations or guilds, in that they move away from representing the workers in general towards representing special interests. An economic system centered around corporations is not in itself a bad one, but it is definitively something different. One has to wonder whether the left has really come to terms with this fundamental shift because the claim to a struggle towards a real social model and values rings more and more hollow.

Is competition good? Certainly it is very natural in the sense that it is the only way in which one can obtain the best out of a group of individual or any improvement out of a system: be it in the form of natural selection or dialectic process, competition has been acknowledged for long to be a powerful instrument of dynamism. But is it right? In a free market economy everyone is pushed to offer what makes him different, better than others, to offer what gives him the competitive hedge. Why protect Italian cheese makers? Ukrainians, say, might produce cheaper cheese, but Italians are going to produce such better quality one that they are simply going to occupy different parts of the cheese making spectrum. If we protect Italians producers they are going to cover the entire spectrum, good and bad producers alike.

Protectionism of course is illogical and expensive, but on the other side one can argue that there are people that do not necessarily want to compete, what if you want to produce mediocre cheese and, say, enjoy more free time, shouldn't your country protect you? To be able to answer this question honestly is crucial; instead there is a considerable amount of skirting the issue, bringing in arguments that are simply peripheral. The same way as on the matter of life or choice we acknowledge that there is an unbridgeable gap of opinion which nonetheless does not stop us from continuing to legislate about related issues, we should reach a firm point about competition.

The unions on this point are not as adamant as they could be. The same way as Catholics do not shy away from proclaiming the sanctity of life, as absurd as this might sound to many of us, so the unions should proudly say, we believe in mediocrity, we call it by that name and we deserve to be protected. Of course this is a very naïve wish, but if we stop to consider it, why should it be? Mediocrity is not necessarily negative, it is simply the undisputed wish to forfeit the leading position in the race. Again, what is wrong with that? The European Union in this as well is the perfect theater to reach some sort of conclusion once and for all: with a blend of protectionism, market economy and, with enlargement, a form of mini globalization, why shouldn't we be able to say what we really think and want?

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