We may be seeing the beginning of the end of the model for civilized governance that has dominated Western civilization since WWII. That model has been provision by the state of all or most of the needs of its people combined with the popular election of the government. Or, in other words, the welfare state plus democracy.
What we are seeing in Europe is that that model is inherently unsustainable. The concept of individual rights is the only standard for government action that puts an objective limit on what the government can do. The post-war leaders of Europe were completely ignorant of that standard. They adopted instead the principle that the primary function of government is to assure its citizens’ welfare. Since there is no limit in principle to the free benefits people would like to get from their government, politicians competed for their citizens’ votes by promising and providing more and more welfare. The political parties that promised the most benefits won the elections.
The desirability of welfare depends on not having to pay for it. People like the subsidies for milk, housing, student loans, health care and so forth, but they hate the taxes. Consequently, tax revenues have always lagged behind spending (the difference is the deficit). To make up the difference, governments sell their IOUs (government debt)—to their own citizens, to corporations, to private banks, to central banks, to foreign countries. Eventually the total debt grows so large, and the deficit grows so large, that holders of the debt begin to doubt that they will be repaid. Then it becomes harder and harder to sell the additional debt that is necessary to cover the deficit. The interest the government has to pay on its debt keeps rising to cover the rising risk, adding more and more to what the government will have to pay when its IOUs come due.
This seems to be the position Greece is in right now. Other European countries are giving or loaning Greece money to cover its deficit on the condition that Greece cut back on its welfare. But the citizens of Greece regard that welfare as a right and are rioting in the streets in protest. Several other European countries evidently are approaching the same crisis. The United States is not yet in crisis, but it has a one and a half trillion-dollar deficit (the government is borrowing 40¢ for every dollar it spends), a difference that cannot be sustained over time any more than Greece’s could be sustained.
There does not seem to be any other end to this process than some form of dictatorship. You cannot cut welfare as long as there are popular elections, so in the name of the country’s survival, popular elections will be first suspended, then suspended indefinitely. The United States will be the last to stumble down this road, but this is clearly the course we are on.