Greeks Bearing Gifts

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“Well, mobs get pretty ugly sometimes, you know.” That’s what Mr. Potter, the villain in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” says to Jimmy Stewart when yet another crisis hits the Building and Loan. He’s right, too. When financial institutions fail — really fail — you can expect violence.

But many people apparently didn’t expect the kind of violence that followed the financial crisis in Greece. For years the Greek government had been handing out enormous welfare benefits, using money that it didn’t have, money borrowed from other people, people who received an erroneous idea about their debtor’s financial condition. The truth having become known, the government bargained for a bailout, making feeble efforts to cut back on some of the supposedly free goods that the populace had come to regard as property rights. Hence riots in the streets and the murders of inoffensive citizens trapped in banks. It was the banks, you see, that were the enemy, not the lying politicians or the rapacious unions, or the middle-class thugs rampaging through the streets.

A popular saying among libertarians is one that comes originally from Proudhon: “Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.” I’m sure there would be violence in a libertarian society, but organized violence tends to result from the aggression or failure of an organized state.

If I let you borrow a few thousand dollars from me, and you refuse to pay it back, I’ll be angry, but I’ll probably be angry at myself as well as you; and I’ll look for some orderly and legal means of making you pay. No mobs will form. If, however, you convince millions of voters to give you money and power so that you can support them for the rest of their lives, and what happens is that taxes soar and the banks get shaky and the currency is worthless and less, and if people are out of work they can’t get jobs because no one has the money to hire them — well then, there’s going to be a reaction, and it’s not going to be pretty. Times like these bring out the worst in people.

You know I’m not just talking about Greece. Throughout the world, governments have tried to build order at the expense of liberty, but right now, nothing could look less orderly.

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