The Malaise of Greek Liberalism

by Ronald Meinardus

Why have efforts to establish liberalism in Greece not been successful?

Ronald Meinardus

These are dramatic times not only for Greece’s economy, but also for the political system. At the center of the drama stands Alexis Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, the “Alliance of Radical Left.”

The group swept to power in January 2015, pledging an end to highly unpopular austerity policies imposed by the creditors. Following a spectacular U-Turn, Tsipras is now fighting to find a majority in the Greek parliament to pass a new deal.

While a sizeable bloc of his party has abandoned him and may form a new party, Tsipras relies on the support of the opposition parties, the left leaning Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) and the conservative New Democracy (Nea Dimokratia).

The year 1974 marks a watershed in Greece’s contemporary history. Following the return of democracy to Greece that year, after seven years dictatorship, these two parties have alternately governed (or: misgoverned) the country on the Southern tip of the Balkans.

It is fair to say that these parties carry a historical burden for the mess Greece finds herself in today.

While they differed in their programs and sociological composition, the two parties nurtured a system that liberal critics in Athens refer to as a combination of political clientelism and (socialist) statism.

Both have relied on patronage politics to come to power and remain there. In that process, they have expanded the state sector to satisfy the demands and expectations of their various clients.

Liberal principles such as the free market, competition, the rule of law, equal opportunity – to name but the most basic in this context – are not compatible with clientelism and statism.

While liberals strive for a small and efficient state, consecutive Greek governments have created a mega-state characterized by a lack of efficiency.

While I am not aware of opinion polls, anecdotal evidence and discussions with Greeks give me the impression that for a majority of them, statist policies have far more appeal than liberal principles such as individual initiative and personal responsibility.

This is all the more surprising, as the widespread belief in the omnipotence of the state, combined with the benefits of public handouts, has had crippling effects on the economy.

Talent exported

Clientelism and patronage have a long tradition in Greece. Their pervasiveness is generally attributed to the dark years of foreign tutelage.

However, this is hard to square with the fact that Greece has always been a nation of traders. Even so, Greeks today on average have little understanding, let alone appreciation, for the benefits of (free) markets.

It is probably fair to say that for well over a century already, much of Greece’s inherent trading talent has sought careers and prosperity abroad.

In some sense, Greece’s liberal voter potential more or less “exported” itself, as considerable numbers of successful Greek business people in the United States, Australia and elsewhere can attest.

The result was – and is – the prevalence of a statist mindset at home. This has had a massive impact in the context of electoral democratic politics, determining both political party preferences and voting patterns.

Up to this day, many Greeks, mainly the so-called “non-privileged,” look back with nostalgia at the 1980s era, when Andreas Papandreou, a populist par excellence, engaged in his brand of patronage politics.

It was at that time of (presumed) public generosity, when the basis for the fiscal disaster now plaguing the country was cast into stone.

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