Charlemagne, over at the Economist blog, can be… uneven. But this recent post about Greece’s public sector is IMO top notch. It puts the creation of Greece’s huge, poorly paid, inefficient public sector in historical context:
Take the painful question of the huge public sector, and all those civil servants with jobs for life, and unusually generous retirement packages. The existence of those jobs for life is not a cultural quirk, in which Greek officials simply like coffee and backgammon too much to do any work. It is the end result of a brutal, multi-decade power struggle between the left and the right: a struggle that got people killed within living memory…
The Greek civil war, and the bloody score-settling that followed, is a living memory for many Greeks. Any consideration of Greek nepotism or clientelism needs to be seen in that light. So for example, it is not enough to say that Greek civil servants enjoy jobs for life, and that is a big problem. (Though it is a big problem, not least because many Greek civil servants are paid pitiful wagesâ€”partly because there are so many of them. That means they will resist austerity measures all the harder, because they feel like victims in this crisis, not fat cats.) But the bloated public sector is also a function of history…
Newspapers here in Belgium talk all the time about the government needing to “buy social peace” by paying off some interest group or other. In Belgium, the alternative to “paix sociale” is a strike. In Greece, plenty of grown-ups remember when the alternative to social peace was their neighbour, or their loved-one, vanishing in the night into a jail cell or worse.
Read the whole thing. I’ve always had a very low opinion of Papandreou pere; it hadn’t occurred to me to think of him as a post-conflict figure, trying to restore social comity to a country still riven by its past. I’m still not sure that was really the case, but it’s an interesting perspective. I’d be interested in comments from our Greek readers.
More generally: the idea that liberal democracy can fix broken societies is an essential part of the EU project. That is, on the whole, a good thing. But it encourages a certain sort of small-scale-map historical amnesia, where all liberal democracies are considered more or less equal, and ugly pasts are relegated to a sort of historical basement where they’re not supposed to be able to affect the clean democratic present.
This is an illusion. Maybe to some extent it’s a necessary illusion. But the EU is full of countries where the dead past isn’t really dead, or even past.
Here’s a random thought: this blog has seen a lot of posts recently talking about economic problems in Greece, Spain and the Baltic States. All of these are countries that were, within living memory, governed by brutal non-democratic authoritarian regimes. Accident? Or is there something else at work here?