A new pecking order
May 7th 2009
From The Economist print edition
There has been a change in Europe’s balance of economic power; but don’t expect it to last for long
FOR years leaders in continental Europe have been told by the Americans, the British and even this newspaper that their economies are sclerotic, overregulated and too state-dominated, and that to prosper in true Anglo-Saxon style they need a dose of free-market reform. But the global economic meltdown has given them the satisfying triple whammy of exposing the risks in deregulation, giving the state a more important role and (best of all) laying low les Anglo-Saxons.
At the April G20 summit in London, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel stood shoulder-to-shoulder to insist pointedly that this recession was not of their making. Ms Merkel has never been a particular fan of Wall Street. But the rhetorical lead has been grabbed by Mr Sarkozy. The man who once wanted to make Paris more like London now declares laissez-faire a broken system. Jean-Baptiste Colbert once again reigns in Paris. Rather than challenge dirigisme, the British and Americans are busy following it: Gordon Brown is ushering in new financial rules and higher taxes, and Barack Obama is suggesting that America could copy some things from France, to the consternation of his more conservative countrymen. Indeed, a new European pecking order has emerged, with statist France on top, corporatist Germany in the middle and poor old liberal Britain floored.
A cockpit of competing capitalisms
It is easy to dismiss this as political opportunism. But behind it sits a big debate not only about the direction of the European Union, the world’s biggest economic unit, but also about what sort of economy works best in the modern world. Thirty years after Thatcherism began to work its cruel magic in Britain (see article), continental Europe still tends to favour a larger state, higher taxes, heavier regulation of product and labour markets and a more generous social safety-net than freer-market sorts like the Iron Lady would tolerate. So what is the evidence for the continental model being better?
The continental countries certainly have not escaped the recession: France may be doing a bit better than the world’s other big rich economies this year, but Germany, dragged down by its exporting industries, is doing significantly worse. Yet Mr Obama is right to admit that in some ways continental Europe has coped well. Tough job-protection laws have slowed the rise in unemployment. Generous welfare states have protected those who are always the first to suffer in a downturn from an immediate sharp drop in their incomes and acted as part of the “automatic stabilisers” that expand budget deficits when consumer spending shrinks. In Britain, and to an even greater extent in America, people have felt more exposed.
The downturn has also confirmed that the continental model has some strengths. France has a comparatively efficient public sector, thanks in part to years of investment in better roads, more high-speed trains, nuclear energy and even the restoration of old cathedrals (see article). Nor is it just a matter of pumping in ever more taxpayers’ cash. By any measure France’s health system delivers better value for money than America’s costlier one. Germany has not just looked after its public finances more prudently than others; its export-driven model has forced its companies to hold down costs, making them competitive not only in Europe but also globally. By design as well as luck, much of continental Europe avoided the debt-fuelled housing bubbles that popped spectacularly in Britain and America (though Spain did not, see article).
But will it last? The strengths that have made parts of continental Europe relatively resilient in recession could quickly emerge as weaknesses in a recovery. For there is a price to pay for more security and greater job protection: a slowness to adjust and innovate that means, in the long run, less growth. The rules against firing that stave off sharp rises in unemployment may mean that fewer jobs are created in new industries. Those generous welfare states that preserve people’s incomes tend to blunt incentives to take new work. That large state, which helps to sustain demand in hard times, becomes a drag on dynamic new firms when growth resumes. The latest forecasts are that the United States and Britain could rebound from recession faster than most of continental Europe.
Individual countries have specific failings of their own. Even if it did everything else right, Germany’s overreliance on exports at the expense of consumer spending has proved a grave weakness in a downturn (see article); its banks also look weak. The rate of youth unemployment in France is over 20% and it can be twice as high in the notorious banlieues where Muslim populations are concentrated. Italy and Spain have seen sharp rises in unit labour costs and their labour-productivity growth has stalled or gone into reverse. It may not be long before the fickle Mr Sarkozy is re-reading his Adam Smith.
Not what you aim for, but how you do it
If there is to be an argument about which model is best, then this newspaper stands firmly on the side of the liberal Anglo-Saxon model—not least because it leaves more power in the hands of individuals rather than the state. But the truth is that the governments on both sides of the intellectual divide could go a long way to making their models work better, without changing their underlying beliefs.
On the continental side, there is nothing especially socially cohesive about labour laws that favour insiders over outsiders, or rules that make the costs of starting a business excessive. Even Colbert might admit that Europe’s tax burdens are too onerous today, particularly since they are likely to have to rise in the future to meet the looming cost of the continent’s rapidly ageing populations.
For the liberals, even if the cycle swings back in their direction, the financial crisis and the recession have shown up defects in the way they too implemented their model. Getting regulation right matters as much as freeing up markets; an efficient public sector may count as much as an efficient private one; public investment in transport, schools and health care, done well, can pay dividends. The pecking order may change, but pragmatism and efficiency will always count.