The EU’s downward spiral

By Lorenzo

Econblogger Bryan Caplan is rightly sceptical of “it will end in civil war(s)” claims about the European Union‘s (EU) current travails, and is moreover prepared to put his money where his blogging is; hence he will accept bets on the issue.

Nobel memorial laureate and economic historian Robert Fogel argued that pressures over mass immigration were a significant aggravating factor in the lead up to the US Civil War. Nevertheless, there is nothing remotely resembling slavery as a sufficiently explosive issue to spark civil war within EU member countries.

While civil wars within EU countries are not at all likely prospect, that does not mean that the EU is not in some serious trouble.

Kratos without demos
The EU lacks a demos; it lacks a common arena of public political bargaining encompassing the entire citizenry. Instead, it has 28 member countries, each with their own demos.

The European Parliament is, in practical terms, an arena for political display without effective political power. European voters clearly treat it as such, both in the serially declining voter turnout and the “treating it as a giant by-election” voting habits.

Lacking an EU demos, there is something of a “divide and conquer” pattern, where the central institutions of the EU — notably the European Commission — get elite agreement on policies and then manoeuvre their implementation with little or no effective input from voters, directly or indirectly. [As a British minister recently admitted.] Hence concern about the EU’s democratic deficit. Ideas that elite folk are attached to but lack popular support (or even provoke popular antipathy) can be implemented in continual “end runs” around popular preferences.

This is such an excellent mechanism for getting things past voter resistance, that it has been expanding into a range of international organisations in the increasing internationalisation of policy-making — not to be confused with globalisation, which is quite different. (Globalisation is the massive increase in international transactions, creating global markets and information networks.)

Broad political bargaining
The trouble with this approach is that there has been a strong tendency over recent centuries for expansion in both ambit and participation of the realm of political bargaining for good reason; such bargaining both engages broader social groups in the political process and forces policy-makers to pay attention to concerns and to factors they might otherwise discount or ignore. Such broadened political bargaining encourages policy more conducive to creating and maintaining productive and stable social orders that increase the ability of states to expropriate and mobilise resources.

So, one might expect that, if EU policy making is driven by narrow political bargaining, that there might be some tendency for policy-making to be not conducive to creating and maintaining productive and stable social orders. In particular, that there might be increasing signs of popular dissatisfaction, even voter anger.



Which is exactly what we see — an increasing “angry vote” across EU countries. An “angry vote” which is not necessarily particularly ideological — so it can be picked up by both “left” (SyrizaPodemos) and “right” (Front NationalSweden DemocratsUKIPFreedom PartyGolden Dawn) political parties, the pattern depending on the dynamics of particular countries — but which manifests in increasing support for previously not mainstream political parties and movements.

Narrow bargaining as dysfunction
The narrow-bargaining policy dynamics of the EU helps explain why the EU tends to be dominated by a combination of bad ideas of the left with bad ideas of the right. Start with labour markets regulated to protect job-incumbents, creating labour market insiders and outsiders. Import migrants not chosen for their ability to contribute to their new societies — who are very much labour market outsiders — while resisting notions that they adapt to their new societies (bad idea of the left). Add in monetary policy which obsesses over non-existent inflationary dangers and cannot tell the difference between hard money and sound money (bad idea of the right).

The interaction between these policies then amplifies their negative effects. Said negative effects, and the patent disregard for popular concerns, then amplifies voter alienation — especially as European countries are very much not settler societies and there is a lot of popular scepticism about, or even antagonism to, immigration.

Healthy polities have mechanisms for correcting surges in angry votes. Thus Australia experienced an  “angry vote” upsurge in the Pauline Hanson/One Nation phenomenon. A mixture of making the case to voters (notably by Tim Fischer, head of the National Party), attack politics (led by an outraged Tony Abbott, who felt deeply personally betrayed when it turned out one of his staffers had also been organising for One Nation) and de-fanging policy adjustment (John Howard‘s “But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” rhetoric and stop-the-boats policy) popped that particular “angry vote” surge.

This successful strategy may have worked with the voters, but generated a great deal of antipathy among progressivists. Since the fundamental principle of much contemporary progressivism is I am morally superior to you because I am more committed to equality than you, by the perverse dynamics of virtue signalling (see also here and here for earlier analyses), blocking popular preferences when they contradict the demands of such signalling have also become part of contemporary progressivism — which makes contemporary progressivists in general ill-equipped to deal with “angry votes” but quite good at generating them. (Which then gives them even more people to signal superior virtue against.)

Discounting popular sentiment
But the EU is not a health polity in the above sense, and not only because it is not fully a polity at all. The original motivating idea of the EU is that nationalism is the great sin and problem of European history. It is quite false: Europeans have never lacked reasons to kill each other (religion, class, ethnicity, language, … ).

The great problem of European history has been unaccountable power. The solution to which is accountable power; political bargaining which encompasses the entire citizenry and makes those holding power in the state agents of said citizenry.

But if one diagnoses nationalism as the great sin, and given that nationalism is a popular sentiment, then popular sentiment is “the problem” and so one creates mechanisms for frustrating “dangerous” popular sentiments.

Or, in other words, another form of unaccountable power. Which has all the attractions of arrogance, status and convenience that unaccountable power offers its possessors.

So, we get policy making by an insufficiently accountable elite who regards popular sentiments as a source of dangers. This leads to policy making that generates “angry votes”. The elite can then say to itself “see!, popular sentiment is dangerous — look who people are voting for”.  This derision of popular concerns, and continuation of “unaccountable business as usual”, continues the pattern of policy making which annoyed many voters in the first place, which then increases the “angry vote”, and so it goes.

This is a downward spiral that is not going to end well.

Unless some corrective mechanisms finally kick in. If they don’t, then, while civil wars are not likely, the EU itself fracturing will become increasingly likely.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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