It’s not easy being Greek right now. The European debt crisis has thrust the small Mediterranean country into a shameful global prominence over the last two years, and tensions have come to a head in the efforts to pass a third bailout in exchange for harsh austerity measures. Greek citizens bristle at the prospect of a generation of national shame and reduced living standards, while the politicians have their hands full squinting into the limelight of international scorn. Through it all runs a bit of irony. Two thousand years after the codification of the political system they named “democracy,” the Greeks are now being scolded for trying to exercise it. We may indeed be witnessing democracy’s bitter homecoming in Athens.
When Greece was invited to share the common currency of the biggest European economies, the euro, they answered the continental welcome by secretly taking on massive amounts of public debt with no concern for how to pay it. The problem uncovered a year into the 2008 financial crisis, to Europe’s horror, and the veil was lifted on the euro-zone. Every other country’s debt problems suddenly exacerbated, and Europe lamented the day it decided to give the little misfit a chance. Two Greek bailouts later, the problem has done nothing but grow. Backs against a wall, the biggest European powers today stand spitefully ready to solve the crisis with a third, trillion-euro bailout in exchange for Greece agreeing to drastically cut spending and end the rampant tax evasion that used to qualify as a national pastime. Problem solved … until Prime Minister George Papandreou hatched the bright idea to put the whole thing to a national vote. The international reaction was an anti-democratic howl unprecedented between Western governments, the putative guardians of civilization’s most beloved political ideal.
The original conception of democracy as practiced by those ancient Hellenic city-states expressed civic duty as indivisible from private life. That had changed by the time of the Greek spending spree in the early 2000’s. Civic duty had been replaced by entitlement, and Western democratic governments could essentially concentrate power as long as they were able to buy off their constituents. Modern democracy had become little more than a system to popularly allocate resources, not to ensure responsive governance. Recent debt crises in the developed world have shed light on that unsurprising truth: there is little to no incentive for any democratic government of means to exercise long-term responsibility at the expense of short-term popularity—until natural forces dictate so. This reckoning has hardest hit Greece, where democracy seems to have suddenly met the end of its useful life with Papandreou’s referendum proposal.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the submission of a crucial international arrangement to the approval of those most affected was met as a scandal. “Giving the people a way to express themselves is always legitimate,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy, “but the solidarity of all the euro-zone countries cannot be exercised unless everyone agrees to make the necessary efforts.” Even within his party, Papandreou’s desperation to recast this unpopular move as a mandate of the people was rejected as unnecessary and unhelpful. “Greece’s position within the euro area…cannot depend on a referendum,” said his finance minister Evangelos Venizelos, echoing the international panic that effortlessly superseded any democratic ideals.
So what do we glean from this? Should the referendum have proceeded? Of course not. The idea that the bailout is a choice the average Greek citizen should be allowed to make for the entire global economy is almost as much a joke as the idea that the status quo is salvageable. It serves, however, as something of a lesson in that noblest and vaguest of political ideals, democracy. In the same Athens that now witnesses daily clashes between anti-austerity protesters and police, Plato once predicted that the arc of democracy would lead to tyranny. As the people grow more avaricious and fond of freedom, he wrote, they lapse good governance, providing an opening for a charismatic tyrant to take power. Thus was Greece’s shortsighted borrowing, thus was its addiction to luxurious public benefits and a lax tax environment, and now, stripped of the ability to exercise democracy at this crucial time, is it oppressed by the tyrant that is its own crushing debt.
When democracy becomes a system for merely spreading resources, what use is left for it when there are no more resources? Greece’s veritable loss of sovereignty is a morality tale for the entire democratic world. Either vest your power structures with incentives to govern responsibly, or face the consequences when all the votes in the world cannot forestall the inevitable.