In Düsseldorf a few years ago, I was invited to a large, crowded party at the closing of GIFA. It was a generous and gracious affair, and the hosts had decided that the entertainment and menu would feature not just the local cuisine but also the specialties of the world. Thus, there were sideboards and tables over laden with German, French, Italian, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and other national and regional specialties, appetizers, drinks, and desserts. It was an impressive and tempting scene, the only drawback of which (for me) was the American menu: the fried chicken was so overcooked it managed to be dry and yet still greasy, and the corn-on-the-cob was boiled nearly to mush. Remaining grateful for the hospitality, I wondered if other guests were similarly disappointed that the pretense had failed.
If I had decided to turn over tables and smash the glassware this analogy to the ongoing calamity in the European Union might seem a little clearer, but the message might be lost: The success of a party relies as much on the graciousness of the guests as it does on the generosity of the hosts. At the same time, it’s possible to push expectations too far: we should learn to recognize and value things as they are, and not risk too much by pretending they may yet become what obviously they are not. Above all, we are individually responsible for our own comfort and success.
As the European monetary union seems to be crumbling, the efforts to hold it together are so tendentious as to make one question why this should be considered a “community” at all. They have had a currency in common, but attitudes about financial responsibility, social obligations, and respect for law obviously vary from one end of the continent to another. Without prosperity to float the premise of a community, the union is revealed to be only as durable as its most disgraceful citizens will allow it to be. Note, too, that the EU has never officially included some of the more prosperous (Norway), or cautious (Switzerland), or independent nations (U.K.) we think of as “Europe.” They seem to have recognized instinctively that something was not perfectly sound. The opportunistic appeal was not enough to draw them into the union.
Ultimately, one must acknowledge that the EU depends not on promises of diversity and prosperity, but on reliable, thrifty, and determined citizens promoting those same qualities in their leaders. If there are not enough of the former, there can be no expectation of the latter. And if there is no one to speak for and lead the EU, then why should those responsible citizens support it?
These points do not pertain only to Europe, where the problem is most apparent. They’re also relevant in this country, where citizens in some states demand too much in benefits and the businesses are too used to subsidies, and the administrators and elected officials are too timid or irresponsible to tell them the money is running out. We have examples of bad behavior here, and some intimations of violence, too, so we must not believe that we are beyond the sort of desperation now showing on CNBC. But, our union was conceived and established as an enterprise of individual opportunity, not general prosperity, and thus responsibility, not privilege. I hope that makes maintaining and defending it a more worthy proposition for citizens.
What we are dealing with is human nature and the willingness of individuals to maintain a civilization. We’re not savages, but neither are we pets. The hard work has mostly been done, but we must do more than soak up the benefits. We have a duty, to ourselves and our posterity, to maintain the standards of civilization. We have to work and pay taxes, to cover the cost of all this we value, and we have to defend the principles that define it and make it possible. Finally, we have to judge what we will tolerate, and what we will not tolerate.
Human nature is unreliable. Most people avoid risk to such an extent that they will surrender some wealth or privilege to gain security. Some people apparently act out violently when their financial security is threatened. We know, too, that there are some who readily take advantage of individuals’ desire for wealth or security — which is the simplest explanation for the fact that billions of souls remain neither prosperous nor free. Watching the peace and prosperity flame out is troubling, but if that spectacle threatens us then we have to wonder what values we will work to uphold.