Austerity and political suicide



In Spain, voters have punished the Socialists severely at the polls because, after several years of fiscal irresponsibility, a huge public debt, unnecessary expenditures and growing unemployment, the Socialist government found itself forced to rule with prudence and began to tighten the people’s belts.

Simply put, voters don’t support the politicians who carry out the feared adjustments. While budget trims are an abstract topic of discussion, everybody seems to understand that it is not possible to spend more than one produces for a long time because bankruptcy soon follows.

But when that reasoning becomes public policy, everyone who finds himself affected blames the government for his woes and withdraws his support.

It’s a universal phenomenon. In a few months, the brand-new governor of Florida has become one of the most rejected politicians in the United States. It is true that he’s not a warm person, nor is he endowed with that natural attraction called charisma, but his growing unpopularity derives not from his psychological features but from the austerity measures he takes to deal with the crisis that Florida is going through.

He was elected to keep the state’s accounts in order, yet when he began to reduce costs and eliminate public employees, the general reaction was repudiation.

That phenomenon originates in a problem that has a very difficult solution: the voter does not perceive the symptoms of bad government, only the apparent benefits he derives. Carefree and continuing public expenditure — especially if part of it is spent in direct subsidies — is seen as proof of the preoccupation of politicians with society, not as clumsy handling of the collective resources.

The voter doesn’t feel that the politician is assigning to him money that he has previously removed from the own voter’s pocket. Even less alarming is the knowledge that he has contracted a debt that someone will have to pay someday. All he cares about is living better than his real income allows. The sun will come out tomorrow, you’ll see.

That explains the scant importance of the accusations of corruption during political campaigns. The voter doesn’t much care if the politician seizes public funds, receives kickbacks or takes advantage of his post to favor his cronies. Behind that moral indifference is the false feeling that the misdirected funds don’t belong to him.

The voter doesn’t realize that corruption not only rots the foundations of democracy but also makes all transactions more expensive. That briefcase full of cash that lands in the pockets of corrupt politicians is eventually paid for (somehow) by the eventual consumers of goods and services.

There are only two ways to deal with this problem.

• The first is full disclosure. Same as when you buy a package of cigarettes you are told that you have just shortened your life because tobacco causes cancer, emphysema, respiratory distress and damaged gums, society should make clear the consequences of all public expenditures, the way the “public choice” economists try to do, without much success.

It is important that society should perceive that there is no such thing as good largesse, even though some may benefit in the short run.

• The other way is to create constitutional locks and bulletproof legislative impediments to reduce the temptation to misspend. If the budgets are made inflexible, if legal limits are placed on the percentage of public employees and the salaries they receive, and if every expense must be approved by a comptroller given the bitter task to prevent excess and prodigality, the voter might be tempted to support the good politicians, not those who incur in mythical social expenditures.

In our democratic system, the idea that a common good exists is a fallacy. What exists are private interests defended tooth and nail by the pressure groups with some access to power. That’s sad, but it’s an idea worth understanding.



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