Crises and Leviathans

|

Ross Douthat gets this right:

I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.

For a week after Greece's fiscal meltdown began, all the talk was about the weakness of the European Union, the folly of its too-rapid expansion, and the failure of the Continent's governing class to anticipate the crisis.

But then the E.U. acted, bailing out Greece to the tune of nearly a trillion dollars, and dictating economic terms to Athens that resemble "the kind of thing a surrendering field marshal signs in a railway car in the forest at the end of a bloody war," in the words of the Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum. If the bailout succeeds, the E.U.'s authority over its member states will be dramatically enhanced -- and a crisis created by hasty, elite-driven integration will have led, inexorably, to further integration and a more powerful elite.

This trajectory should be familiar to Americans. The panic of 2008 happened, in part, because the public interest had become too intertwined with private interests for the latter to be allowed to fail. But everything we did to halt the panic, and all the legislation we've passed, has only strengthened the symbiosis.

From the Troubled Asset Relief Program to the stimulus bill, from the auto bailout to health care reform, we've created a vast new array of public-private partnerships -- empowering insiders at the expense of outsiders, large institutions at the expense of small ones, and Washington at the expense of state and local governments. Eighteen months after the financial crisis, the interests of our financiers, C.E.O.s, bureaucrats and politicians are yoked together as never before.

What we have, Douthat suggests, is "a system that only knows how to move in one direction. If consolidation creates a crisis, the answer is further consolidation. If economic centralization has unintended consequences, then you need political centralization to clean up the mess. If a government conspicuously fails to prevent a terrorist attack or a real estate bubble, then obviously it needs to be given more powers to prevent the next one, or the one after that."