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Europe’s leaders are acting like the hapless ministers of pre-Revolution France

And when the inevitable finally comes, the Greeks who suffer most will be the least guilty

By on Tuesday, 1 November 2011

George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, has proposed a referendum on the bailout (Photo: PA)

George Papandreou, the Greek prime minister, has proposed a referendum on the bailout (Photo: PA)

The end of the euro is nigh, or so we are assured by the authoritative figure of Archbishop Cranmer in his latest blog post. And he is not the only one taking up the doleful strain. In fact it seems quite incredible not that the euro is about to implode, but that it has gone on so long. Or indeed that it continues to ride high in the currency markets. But what would I know? Economics is not an exact science – if it were, we would all be prosperous. As it is we fumble in the dark.

Take the example of quantitative easing, or printing more money in order to pay off your debts: it is hard to be certain of whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Opinion divides. The Bank of England presumably think it a good idea. Others think it is disastrous.

Funnily enough it was The Catholic Herald that first predicted that the government would be driven to this extreme, back in October 2008. In that article I highlighted the astonishing parallels between the government of our own time and the hapless ministers of Louis XVI and their revolutionary successors, both faced with an immoveable debt mountain. The current attempts to bail out Greece, or more accurately cushion the banks from the effects of a Greek default, which must surely come, remind one of the various attempted miracle cures to the French finances in the last quarter of the 18th century. None of them worked. Will they work now? I doubt it. Magic wands are still elusive.

The current expedient, the latest attempt to stave off the inevitable, is the proposed Greek referendum, in other words the idea of getting the Greeks to assent to their own economic meltdown, as they would doubtless see it. Once more this recalls the desperate manoeuvres of the French government as financial ruin approached, and its attempts to get various interest groups to assent to being taxed. But then as now, while everyone can see that the bill has to be paid, no one wants to pick up the tab.

There are some moral points that need to be made here. The first is that it is immoral to run up debts that you can never repay. To do so is a form of theft. Second it is immoral to lend people money which you know they can never repay: to do so is the equivalent of giving an alcoholic drink, or a drug addict a free supply of crack cocaine. The current spending spree by individuals and nations is a moral disaster for which both banks and consumers are responsible.

Finally, and this is a moral point that few grasp: if you sin, you will be punished. The Greeks are suffering now, but they have brought this on themselves. Sadly, taking the Greek example, those suffering most are the least guilty, the smaller people, the poor, the old and the vulnerable; those suffering least are the lords of misrule who have spent all the money and have little to show for it, and who pay little tax. When punishment comes, as sure it must, the guilty will get off relatively unscathed.

So, what is to be done? One has the impression that our rulers, in trying to save the situation, are merely putting off the evil day of disaster. Sooner might be better. Let the default come, let nature take its course, let Greece default and banks fold. Then let us pick up the pieces and learn the lessons.

  • Anonymous

    As you say, Fr Alexander, the effects of sin fall on the innocent. It seems to me that’s part of the injustice of sin, its selfishness and lack of consideration for others in a human community whose members are unavoidably linked in solidarity.

  • Anonymous

    This is an excellent article. It is a shame that few other Christian commentators take a view on the current financial crisis from a moral perspective without using big latinate words, whereas the descriptions theft and dishonesty would suffice.

    At heart this crisis is caused by a moral implosion as every bit as catastrophic as the collapse of families and the substitution of relationships for the sacrament of marriage.

    This should be the thrust by Christian journalists using the same direct simple injunctions that Christ used to condemn similar behaviour in the first century AD.

  • theroadmaster

    It seems that it is the one size fits all solution of the single currency which is the euro is spectacularly unraveling before our eyes.  The stringent conditions attached by the IMF and the European Central Bank to the respective bail-outs for debt-ridden countries, resemble punishment given by a cane-wielding headmaster to unruly pupils, because of the  budgetary overspends and government wastage which have characterized their fiscal policies.  The rebellious Greek pupils are not staying behind for detention.

    On top of this,we have seen the amoral speculation by casino banks on volatile housing markets and other areas while huge bonuses changed hands as the Western economies staggered from the huge financial losses which these banks accrued.  Surely the idol of mammon is starting to wear thin across the jaded and bloated West and will eventually be reduced to the same fate as the golden calf which the Israelites worshiped after fleeing from Egypt in the Book of Exodus. 

  • maryp

    Thank you for this excellent article. Our morally bankrupt society has produced morally bankrupt politicians and CEOs (with a few exceptions) – the only certain thing nowadays is one’s faith. And thanks be to God for it.