Greece could sure use a philosopher-king right about now

Is this the ancients’ legacy for Greece?
Is this the ancients’ legacy for Greece?
Image: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis
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As Greece approaches yet another election—its fifth in six years—the country’s philosophical forefathers can only be smirking. Plato and his teacher Socrates famously warned about the pitfalls of democracy: social disorder, economic turmoil and, eventually, a disillusioned turn towards tyranny. As governments based on the will of the masses lurch from one shortsighted policy to another, representatives fall prey to avarice. Democracy, in short, is inherently vulnerable to populism—which inevitably leads to the collapse of democracy itself.

In many ways, history has proved Plato wrong: democracies are generally more stable and associated with greater social welfare than any other form of government. Institutional checks and balances and guarantees of civil liberties have helped most democracies ‘self-correct’, avoiding destructive policy swings while remaining responsive to popular will. Winston Churchill’s well-known adage that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms…” holds true.

Yet even the most ardent democrats must concede that Greece today—while by no means a tyranny—is certainly far from a well-functioning democracy. Successive elected governments have bankrupted the country and gutted domestic institutions. Large areas of governance have been surrendered to the European Union (EU), fueling the rise of radical groups like the neo-fascist Golden Dawn and far-left Syriza and Popular Unity.

In one of the most bizarre episodes in recent democratic history, Greeks’ resounding rejection of the EU’s stark bailout terms in this July’s referendum effectively gave a radical left-wing Syriza government a ‘mandate’ to strike an even starker deal with creditors. Approved in parliament with the help of opposition parties, that deal forced the government’s collapse and led to the upcoming elections—which the same (now relatively less) radical left wing Syriza is slated to win. But only by a slim margin at best, leaving Greece in a state of persistent political instability.

The EU’s institutional barriers will, of course, limit the political and economic fallout from Greece’s dysfunction. After all, Greeks do not want to leave the EU or the Eurozone, and Europe’s core powers—Germany and France—are deeply committed to perpetuating the European project. A Greece that remains in the EU is much less likely to devolve fully into extremist politics—much less, tyranny.

And yet, here lies Greece’s—and arguably broader Europe’s—democratic dilemma. The very institutions and incentives that bind Greece’s decline also undermine its democracy and exacerbate its vulnerability to populism. Because the most consequential ‘Greek’ institutions and policies are actually not Greek but ‘European,’ democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms are obstructed and its institutions are losing legitimacy. For Greece, EU membership both drives, and ultimately contains, its political instability and economic disorder, binding it in a ‘slow burn’ of political-economic decline.

Indeed, this dynamic extends beyond Greek borders to many of its EU neighbors, where discontent with the European project and perceptions of detached elites making policy in Brussels and Berlin are fueling the rise of more populist and nationalist parties. Ironically, elections to the European parliament itself have provided the radical Eurosceptic parties—France’s Front National, Denmark’s People’s Party and Holland’s Party for Freedom, among others—with their most prominent institutional platform to rail against EU membership.

This trend will only accelerate as Europe struggles to deal with the flood of migrants from the Middle East and North Africa, weakening member states’ commitments to open borders and inflaming grievances about diktats coming from Brussels, Berlin and Paris. As we have seen in Hungary, where prime minister Viktor Orbán openly seeks an “illiberal” society, more radical governments are less likely to self-correct and defend democratic values when costly policies are imposed from above.

In short, the pathologies of EU governance—including its well-known “democratic deficit”—are encouraging the rise of populist parties by undermining faith in domestic political institutions. This perpetuates the risks of political instability and economic crisis—risks that are ultimately contained by the same EU institutions that drive them. Given Europe’s bloody history and failed experiments with democracy in the inter-war period, EU governance is still (apropos Churchill) the least bad option for Greece and the continent in general. But it will also perpetuate the “slow burn” of Greece’s—and arguably Europe’s—political legitimacy and economic capacity.

A political paradox, to be sure—one fit for Plato’s philosopher-king.