The Euro Crisis and the Return of Culture

I well remember being almost persuaded by Francis Fukuyama’s wonderfully argued The End of History and the Last Man. The book suggested that the West and perhaps the world had reached an endpoint where democracies constrained by the rule of law and powered by market economies would dominate. If so, the future looked happy. The synthesis of the principles of democracy and economic liberty would lead to a peaceful prosperity where the chief excitement might come from the relentless doubling of computer power.

At least so far, however, The End of History has collided with history. Much of the Islamic world has not gotten the message. To be sure,  the fall of the Soviet Union has led to many ex-communist states with an admirable commitment to law and the kind of economics that gains long-term prosperity.   But there remains Russia, where democracy seems incapable of sustaining a loyal opposition, the state looms as leviathan, and the economy has large elements of a kleptocracy. Readers of Russian history should not be surprised. Richard Pipes has long argued that since the 15th century, Russian culture has been marked by disdain for rights of property and an enthusiasm for a patrimonial regime with little separation between state and economic and civic society.

But nothing better represents the failure of Fukuyama’s thesis than plight of Euro and the Greek crisis. The Euro was the monetary representation of history’s end in the birthplace of the West. Created by no single state, it was thought to advance markets by reducing commercial frictions in  the most cosmopolitan part of the world.  It was also part of a larger political project of deepening the union of European states.

But the currency union fatally assumed that the all cultures of European nations resembled those of the Last Man—market-oriented with accountable democratic government. But Greece does not share in the sober Protestant culture of the nation states of Northern Europe. Rather, Greece has been more shaped by the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire and still bears the scars of the civil war between Communists and non-Communists. The result was a patronage state with circumscribed markets and unsustainable handouts—a kind of political and economic structure that cannot be fit within the Euro.   And while Greece no doubt diverges more greatly from the Northern European culture than any other nation in the Euro, other Mediterranean nations, shaped by more communitarian Catholic views, also look very different.

Thus, culture is making a comeback, both as an obstacle to ending history and as an explanation of social reality. And we should not look for it only in crisis. A recent report suggests that poverty rates among Scandinavians in the United States with its limited social safety net are not that different from Scandinavian states with its more substantial support, raising the question of whether it is Scandinavian culture rather than economic policy that is the key to low poverty rates.

It is not clear that our intellectual class can easily accept culture as an explanation for social consequences.  Of course, our universities are committed to saying that nothing is more important than diversity, which one might think necessarily focuses on cultural differences and their effects. But we may have internalized the values of democracy and markets sufficiently that focusing on differential results inevitably leads to invidious comparisons. And that is something our diversity culture can probably not tolerate.