Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Alexis Tsipras: Sinn Fein's Angel of Death

Between February and October 1864, Denmark's liberal nationalist prime minister Ditlev Gothard Monrad, seeking to both entrench his liberal constitutional reforms and to expand the geopolitical influence of his increasingly ambitious kingdom, made the fateful decision to militarily squelch the secessionist ambitions of the conservative, German speaking nobility in the country's southern Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein. The result was a bloody and expensive war against the German Confederation led by the ambitious Prussian Chancellor, Count Otto von Bismarck, in which the Danes were routed and lost the two Duchies for good. Bismarck's extraordinary victory was the arguable catalyst for the increasingly bellicose Prussians' decision to embark on successful wars with Austria in 1866 and France in 1868, resulting in the emergence of a new regional superpower (then as now) called Germany. In today's restive Eurozone, there can be no doubt that Frau Merkel and her finance minister Herr Schauble have been cast in roles eerily reminiscent of those of Bismarck and his Chief of Staff Field Marshall von Moltke in the 1860s - albeit that their weapons are financial and not military. By the same token, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis have insisted on reprising the roles of Monrad and his Chief of Staff, General Christian Julius de Meza in the war of 1864. Tsipras' decision may prove no less fateful than Monrad's.

Monrad's folly was to bet on the supposed impregnability of the Danevirke fortress in Schleswig. However, after General de Meza was forced to pre-emptively evacuate the ancient stronghold on 5 February 1864, political panic undermined military operations and made Denmark's eventual humiliation inevitable. Tsipras' Danevirke moment occurred after his initial post-election meetings with Europe's main political leaders when, buoyed by the plaudits of commentators like Martin Wolfe, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, he made the calculation that the Germans would be sufficiently terrified of the prospect of "Grexit" precipitating a chain reaction of pre-emptive bank-runs in other PIIGS economies, that they would be forced to blink and extend more generous bailout terms to Greece, which would in turn give the Syriza government a line of credit to pursue its favoured experiments in dirigiste intervention and Keynesian stimulus in place of the so-called "austerity" doctrines emanating from Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt. If, as Varoufakis has predicted, a Greek expulsion from the euro catalyses the disintegration of that benighted currency, then history may yet hold that the bet was a respectable one. However, as the Mexican standoff between Germany and Greece becomes ever more critical, it appears more and more likely that Tsipras' political gamble has failed.

When the dust settles on post-crisis Greece, there now seems almost no hope that Tsipras will have secured the expansionary bailout with eurozone privileges which he promised at election time and has sought faithfully since taking office. Rather, a ghastly and unenviable choice now appears to lie in front of the greenhorn statesman. In order to prevent an imminent financial crisis, he must swallow Frankfurt's bitter medicine - perhaps with a few token compromises like limited leeway on spending in return for a crackdown on tax evasion. In so doing, he will reveal to the electorate what the cynical always suspected - namely, that when it came to crunch time, he was no better than his PASOK or ND predecessors, save that his pre-election stances were, at best, even more naive and, at worst, even more mendacious. On the other hand, he can stick to his guns and default, the result of which will be that ECB funding is withdrawn from the country's ailing banks, the Drachma will need to be re-issued (more or less overnight) and the hapless new currency will be slaughtered on the foreign exchange markets for weeks or perhaps months after Grexit. The resulting devaluation will tear a gigantic gash through Greece's extremely import dependent economy and galloping inflation will devalue every wage and benefit in Greece even as it lightens the government's debt burden. To stem inflation, the Bank of Greece will be forced to raise interest rates to levels which bankrupt the country's forlorn debtors and make deficit spending by the government all but impossible. In short, the result will be all the horrors of "austerity" delivered at lightening speed instead of being graduated over years, as required by the troika's internal devaluation policies.

One way or the other, the resulting political fallout threatens to derail Sinn Fein before the party even has a chance of entering government. Naturally, the dream scenario for Gerry Adams and his team would have been a new Greek bailout on Syriza's terms. However, with the ship fast sailing on this outcome, it would now appear that Sinn Fein would have been much better off had the failure of the Greek parliament to elect a new president not resulted in the Greek general election being called two years early. Had the late 2015/early 2016 Irish general election been preceded by strong opinion polling for Syriza and regional success for Spain's Podemos, Sinn Fein would have been able to face their campaign with the wind at their backs. The premature ascension of Syriza and the certain humiliation that it imminently faces will send a powerful message to Irish voters about what a Sinn Fein government is likely to look like, with the choice between an unbending anti-austerity government which catastrophically breaks the fragile Irish economy by precipitating an infarction in the increasingly skittish sovereign debt markets or a "flexible" Sinn Fein administration which is forced to break its reckless and irresponsible promises, one-by-one, in order to avoid breaking the country's finances.

I have always been convinced that Sinn Fein, as a party, has a very poor long-term future, with the likelihood that it could be dangerously exposed by the exigencies of government. However, it may well be that Alexis Tsipras delivers the fatal blow to Sinn Fein's credibility without it even having the chance to govern. If so, then the Irish electorate can count itself lucky to learn from another electorate's mistake before making its own. 

Monday, 1 June 2015

James Reilly's Smacking Ban and the Rise of the Illiberal State

In 1974, when a 27 year old married mother of four by the name of Mary McGee took a (successful) case to the Irish Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the prohibition on contraception, her counsel invoked the right to family privacy as one of their declaratory grounds. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when providers of abortion information sought to challenge the constitutional prohibition of their activity in the case of SPUC v. Grogan, their counsel invoked the right to freedom of expression. In both cases, campaigners sought to invoke freedom of conscience. They say that the past is a different country and that they do things differently there. Back in the days when left progressives constituted a dissenting minority in a Catholic nation with a socially conservative political establishment, the ideas of privacy, free expression and free conscience seemed like necessary protections against majoritarianism. Today, the progressive left holds the whip hand in relation to the public discourse and, strangely enough, it seems to regard the aforementioned as unnecessary impediments to the activities of a benevolent state. Funny what a little power does to one's perception of these matters.

Last week, Ireland celebrated what was hailed as the crowning achievement of the liberal agenda when the electorate voted Yes in the gay marriage referendum. However, now that the political establishment has completed its self-validating post scriptum to a culture war it won decades ago, the (already thin) veneer of liberalism it assumed for the duration of its campaign has rubbed off. Yes folks, it seems that we're back to business as usual. Thanks to Minister for Children, James Reilly, the same sex parents who form the new family units which are sure to follow the referendum will emerge into a world in which parenting and family life will be subject to truly unprecedented levels of state control and regulation. The latest ukase to emerge from Dr. Reilly's department is a smacking ban for parents, in one fell swoop, establishing a new layer of government infringement of familial privacy and seeking to re-engineer in the space of a few months, practices that have organically developed over millennia. This is the antithesis of a liberal philosophy - the authoritarian imposition of the state on a social architecture in which it has previously been absent. It also represents the antithesis of a rational and empirical mindset - the adoption of a Manichean worldview of good versus evil encapsulated in the obdurate refusal to recognise the distinction between physical punishment causing actual injury (which has always been viewed with suspicion or downright hostility) and light physical correction (e.g. the proverbial slap on the wrist), which cannot rationally be viewed with such stubborn certainty.      

At least, however, Dr. Reilly's new wheeze is a bad answer to a serious question, involving, as it does, defining the peripheries of what constitutes assault. The same cannot be said of other measures which the disturbingly authoritarian Fine Gael-Labour government is seeking to impose on the population. The Minister for State in the Department of Justice, Aodhan O'Riordan, for example, is attempting to enact new and stiffer "incitement to hatred" laws, which are sure to make it easier for the government to suppress political and other speech with which it disagrees. In the Department of Health, Dr. Leo Varadkar is seeking to impose minimum prices on alcohol - a move which will impose disproportionate financial impacts on lower income earners - and to compel restaurants to put calorie counts on menus - a move which will disadvantage small independent restaurants over big chains. Again, it is hard to see how these government intrusions can possibly be regarded as consistent with a liberal philosophy (i.e. one devoted to personal freedom), yet in our supposedly liberal age, politicians who are willing to oppose these intrusions into the private domain are few and far between.

What's worse is that this galloping authoritarianism is almost guaranteed not to achieve its stated aims. A smacking ban will do nothing to deter real abuse. However, it will make it just a little harder for a responsible parent to stop her three year old from running out into the traffic, it will almost certainly result in decent, functioning families being torn apart by ham-fisted government interventions and it will inevitably provide grist to the mill of those who deal in the currency of false and malicious allegations against innocent people. Minimum alcohol prices won't impact our fondness for hooch - some of the highest alcohol taxes in the world have already failed to do so - but they will increase financial hardships for alcohol users and their families. The mandatory calorie count will have little effect on cash rich chain restaurants which produce commoditised and unhealthy food and whose clientele is least likely to heed calorie numbers. However, it will impact the financial viability of small and independent outlets which tend to serve healthier food and have more educated, more health-conscious patrons. All of these policies will, however, create armies of regulators, bureaucrats, technocrats and plutocrats who always know how to bank public concerns into private profits and to socialise the costs incurred along the way.

What makes this creeping (not to mention creepy) authoritarianism worse still is that, in many cases, the government is, itself, subsidising the problems it seeks later on to coercively address. For example, if the government is truly concerned about our smoking, drinking and healthy eating, why does it use community rating laws to stop health insurers from charging higher premia to those with unhealthy habits like smoking? Why does it make all social welfare payments in cash (which can be spent on booze, fags and junk food) instead of vouchers (whose redemption can be monitored)? Why does it make no distinction in medical card allocations between those such as smokers and over-eaters, who have self-inflicted health issues and those who do not? The questions just go on and on. However, they are not being asked in the halls of government. Instead, a climate of unreality bordering on mysticism seems to dominate Irish public policy. In the wake of the referendum, many on the right have been asking whether there are any political representatives left for conservatism. That's a good question, but perhaps a better one is this: In a supposedly liberal age, who will stand up for liberalism?