Promoters of private equity funds, unlike directors of publicly held corporations, have great freedom to operate with borrowed capital and are indeed encouraged by their investors to run high risks by using high leverage. By good judgment and good luck, they usually succeed in making astronomical fortunes for themselves while their investors are adequately but not indecently rewarded for carrying most of the risk.
Part of the public in the United States, and a tiny handful in Europe, contemplates these spectacular earnings with admiring awe. Everyone else considers them indecent. They provoke the most virulent kind of hatred for capitalism.
The gap, of course, is that between the sadly wilting economic performance of the core states of Europe and the vigorous growth of China, South Korea, India, and—more painfully and embarrassingly—of the United States. For it must be recognized that while most Europeans think that fast development in Asia is rather a good thing, they find being outperformed by America in the last two decades quite hard to take.
Users of the London Underground are familiar with the sonorous warning of the loudspeaker at certain stations to “mind the gap!” between the carriage and the platform edge when getting on or off. The message of the Lisbon Program can be compressed into the same warning shout to “mind the gap,” though here both the gap and the danger it holds are metaphorical, but no less serious for all that.
The gap is deplored and there is a genuine desire to reduce it if that is feasible without sacrificing what goes by the name of “the European social model.” They wish this, but only in part because more growth is still widely regarded as good in itself despite ecological objections. In great part, however, reducing the gap is a matter of pride, a virility symbol that would sweep away any suggestion of superior American prowess.
In countries where voluntary donations are not the custom, outright graft is the unpalatable alternative. Here, the party controlling a city, regional, or national budget will award public works or supply contracts, issue building permits or licenses for new supermarkets to the enterprise that offers the right kickback in the right manner. Public payrolls will be padded with party stalwarts, this being the carrot; the stick will often be tax audits.
To see why, we should analyze the three broad ways of financing politics. The first is the Anglo-American one. In Britain and in the United States, substantial differences notwithstanding, individuals, businesses, labor unions, and other associations make voluntary contributions to parties and candidates. The amounts and their disclosure may be regulated, but as long as the system remains transparent, it appears fair enough. It involves no theft of public funds; the donors give their own money.
It would be nice to believe that this newfound indignation has come about because our standards of public morality have suddenly risen. But in the absence of any visible evidence that they have, we should look for an explanation elsewhere. I would suggest that the sudden backlash has to do more with the size of the corruption than with its nature. As government has steadily grown in recent years, so has politics, and so has corruption.
So why pay attention to the current incarnation of this old phenomenon? The difference this time is that this established practice is, unusually, prompting indignation and disgust from the population. The scandals, spun out by the media in teasing detail, are generating contempt for politicians and increasing a popular refusal to be led by the “chattering classes.” The Danish rejection of the euro in a referendum last month, despite the near consensus for it among mainline politicians and editorial pages, was more than anything an example of people no longer willing to be led by the political class. Europe seems to be fed up with politics as usual.
Party-financing scandals seem destined to be Europe’s new plague, cropping up here and there with increasing frequency and never really abating altogether. In the last ten years or so, illicit party funding has become the prime detonator of public scandals in Italy and France and has moved to center stage even in Germany. France now seems to be the country most shaken, with recurring allegations that President Jacques Chirac accepted millions in kickbacks for his Gaullist Party, though few of France’s neighbors have remained immune. Is any of this new?
While the front end may look honest, however, the back end is not always so. While some donors no doubt act out of a sense of public duty, many expect to be noticed and remembered by the party or candidate they have supported. Once elected, the politician must pay for the support one way or another, on pain of getting no support the next time round. There is no more tangible manner of saying thanks than the diversion of public spending or the twisting of the regulatory framework in favor of the benefactor. The bargain may most often be tacit but is no less immoral for that.
What makes it plausible—nay, likely to come about—is precisely that hardly anybody is planning it, but all but a few are moving toward this socialist superstate with their eyes wide shut.
Much of this sounds as though I believed that a conspiracy is being hatched somewhere. That’s not the case. The EU is not all bad. It often does useful work, such as in stopping anticompetitive policies by the members. The reality is that if anyone or any group were consciously trying to make any of what I have described happen, little of it would really take shape.