Even if austerity is great, it won’t work in Europe

The race is on to use Europe’s rejection of fiscal austerity as a cudgel to beat Republicans. “Economic austerity is a dangerous, self-defeating intellectual fad,” Eugene Robinson thunders. “Perhaps I should say that’s what it was, given Sunday’s election results in Europe. Perhaps I should also say good riddance.”

Robinson’s interpretation of Europe’s most recent round of elections is close to becoming received wisdom. “Voters in France, Greece and even Germany — a hotbed of the austerity cult — told their political leaders, in no uncertain terms, that boosting economic growth is more important than cutting government spending.” Never mind that Europe’s so-called failed austerity measures aren’t really austerity. (Taxes have risen, but spending hasn’t substantially declined.) The logic is simple: whatever Europe’s doing, it isn’t working, so Europe must be doing whatever I’m against. Call it Robinson’s Fallacy.

This is a pitfall that anyone can fall into, but right now it’s gobbling up America’s liberals, who currently have the most invested in the faulty belief that, when it comes to policymaking, Europe and America are actually useful examples for one another. “Here in the United States,” Robinson sighs on behalf of a whole commentariat, “I hope that Democrats, at least, were paying attention; I fear that the addled ideologues who control the Republican Party will never get the message.” The real message every American pundit and policymaker should get is much different than anyone who falls prey to Robinson’s Fallacy thinks it is.

Bluntly stated, Europe and America are so different that our assumption should always be this: nothing that succeeds or fails in Europe can guide American policymaking, and nothing that succeeds or fails in America can guide European policymaking.

For someone whose policy views are driven by economics, this sounds like nihilism. Actually, it’s realism. The deep political and cultural differences that separate the two halves of the Western world are vastly more important than whatever superficial similarities can be derived from economic analysis.

The so-called failure of so-called austerity is a perfect illustration of this. Austerity in today’s Europe will never work for the same reason a program of Krugman-style ultra-profligacy will never work. No political authority extends over the whole of afflicted Europe, and no pan-European economic policy will ever succeed unless it is implemented by a single, authoritative political entity. The austere sensibilities of German fiscal policymakers are not to blame for Germany’s incapacity to compel Europe to do its economic bidding.

What’s more, no top-down regulatory regime can possibly transform European habits and mores, which will remain deeply rooted in values like leisure and solidarity barring something vastly more powerful than renegotiated treaties and revised regulatory regimes. The kind of top-down event that can work such a transformation must itself be a transformation — on par with Napoleon Bonaparte’s sweeping revaluation of France, the French Revolution, and Europe itself.

As yet, precious few analysts of any political bent are willing to go there. They’re tremendously resistant to stepping outside the comfortable confines of Robinson’s Fallacy. Here in the real world, however, the disorienting effects of making that leap soon give way to some clarifying insights.