The slow-motion economic disintegration of Greece is being driven not by war, famine or ecological disaster, but rather the simple inability of ordinary people to support reasonable fiscal policies through the democratic process. The Greeks demand that their government provide them with a comfortable level of prosperity regardless of whether they can afford it. In order to win elections, Greek legislators gave the people what they wanted until the credit ran out. Now their profligacy has been exhausted, the country is saddled with a mountain of debt it has no hope of repaying, and there are no painless options remaining.
This story is being closely watched in terms of its potential impact on the world economy in general and the European Union (EU) in particular. A huge amount of sovereign debt must be written off which will make a big hit on financial markets. And the EU itself will undergo a crisis of confidence as one of its members, albeit a small one, falls off the boat. This will be something new to the EU, and it will be interesting to see how they handle it.
One lesson seems clear -- it takes more than a common currency to forge a cohesive political entity. Like the United States under our first Constitution -- the Articles of Confederation -- the EU lacks the power to harness its member states together in a unified legal-economic system. The European people do not think and behave like one nation. Until (and if) they learn to do so, the EU will remain a house of cards.
But there is another aspect of this Greek drama that troubles me even more than the threat to the EU. It is the failure of democracy itself. One cannot help recalling that it was the Greeks who first experimented with democratic government more than two millennia ago, and it did not last very long. Indeed, it proved so fragile that no nation tried it again until 1776.
We would do well to ponder the Greek democratic experience and its implications for our own democracy which has lasted 239 years thus far, but seems increasingly at odds with itself and unable to handle basic government challenges. We are unable to live within our means, leading to a rapid accumulation of debt. We need to spend more on our aging infrastructure but cannot find the will to do it. Our elected representatives are unable to make basic compromises and the public is equally divided. At times we really do seem like two separate nations -- one urban and liberal, the other rural and conservative.
Worst of all, the inability of our government to come together on important issues and make basic decisions essential to the nation's well-being fuels the propaganda of repressive governments around the world which happily celebrate the apparent decadence of democracy. The proliferation of demagoguery in our increasingly rancorous politics does little to counter that view. As we gather to celebrate our nation's birthday, and honor the brave patriots who won for us our freedom, we would do well to consider the fragile nature of our democratic heritage, and do what we can to de-emphasize the partisan spirit.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications", published by The History Publishing Company.