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Transatlantic Blog

Welfare states cultivate the sin of sloth

As thousands of African migrants land on the golden beaches of Spain, old Europe shows the signs of fatigue. In August, most of its politicians are on holiday. Every summer, for nearly six weeks, Brussels officials cannot be bothered to ponder the future of the European Union. 

In the meantime, in Mediterranean countries, the youth seem to be haunted by the same pressing question: “Will I get a proper job?” In Greece, unemployment stands at 42.9 percent; in Spain, unemployment is 35 percent; in Italy, it is more than 30 percent. Compared to the recent performance of the U.S. economy, such figures are perplexing. They indicate the existence of a severe threat to political stability and social cohesion. In both economic and existential terms, joblessness is a serious matter. Why? Because a job provides, not just an income, but also a sense of purpose. It is not government handouts or parental support that make young people happy, but personal responsibility and a deep-seated conviction that the fruits of one's labor make the world a better place.

According to official statistics, by late April 8.5 percent of the eurozone population was out of work. There are nearly 4.5 million young persons under 25 who are unemployed in the EU – a figure to which Angela Merkel added a few extra million refugees. This number does not include undocumented immigrants.

Beyond these numbers, the real challenge is the loss of respect for that political philosophy which made hard working people successful. Most politicians in Great Britain avoid talking about Margaret Thatcher and of her support for the free market economy and apprenticeship. As Upton Sinclair once put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” 

An enterprising country encourages individuals to multiply their talents by bringing their physical labors and intellectual energy into an ever-growing network of economic productivity and human flourishing.

A plethora of demagogues, from Syriza politicians in Greece to Podemos’ leaders in Spain, emerged, running on platforms full of empty promises. Everybody knows that food stamps cannot build a future for the youth of a nation. An enterprising country encourages individuals to multiply their talents by bringing their physical labors and intellectual energy into an ever-growing network of economic productivity and human flourishing. This vision is currently in favor among American domestic affairs, but it is painfully absent from the European agora.

Gone are the days of the German economic miracle, when Ludwig Erhard embraced the ideas of Ordoliberalismus, leading his country to a stunning 10 percent yearly growth in the late 1960s.

What accounts for the Brezhnev-style stagnation of Europe? The Chinese financial leader Jin Liqun, the first president and chairman of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, gave his Western European partners his verdict: “If you look at the troubles which have happened in European countries, this is because of the accumulated troubles of their worn-out welfare societies. I think the labor laws are outdated. The labor laws induce sloth, indolence rather than hard-working.” 

Welfare handouts kill people's desire to accept seasonal jobs, part-time jobs, or entry-level jobs – and, thus, to learn new skills. With electoral bribes given to elderly voters, national governments have stopped investing in infrastructure. The building of roads, bridges, and airports has been delayed, breaking the social contract with future generations. Trade unions encourage ill-informed workers to go on strike, blocking the harmony that would follow any pro-business initiative. Shrewd politicians often express statements of compassion from their lofty (and comfy) seats, but no words can replace a well-paying job. 

It is not just the welfare state which has put the virtue of industriousness out of business, but the slow death of the Christian faith.

The Chinese representative was right to reprimand, not just the politicians and unelected bureaucrats in Brussels – where the length of lunch breaks is directly proportional to the size of pay packages – but also the peoples of many half-deserted European cities, who think that “summer is the time when it is too hot to do the jobs that it was too cold to do in the winter.” In France, the average person is all-too happy about the 35-hour workweek, with one month of paid vacation each year. 

“Maybe it was porn who killed God,” wrote historian Niall Ferguson, summarizing the radical transformation of the work ethic that has taken place in secular Europe since the end of the twentieth century. The rise of cheap, crass, and corrupt entertainment has created new opportunities for young people to work less and to party more. The continent where St. Benedict planted the seeds of the Christian ethic “ora et labora” must change its labor laws, as well as its collective mindset. From high officials to ordinary people, too many Europeans have domesticated the sin of laziness. It is not just the welfare state which has put the virtue of industriousness out of business, but the slow death of the Christian faith.

Finally, the recent waves of migrants coming to Europe from North Africa (and from Syria) are dramatically changing the cultural, religious, and economic landscape of traditionally diligent societies. Last year, Austria’s Interior Minister, Wolfgang Sobotka, declared that 90 percent of asylum seekers end up receiving State subsidies. In Norway, migrants account for half of the welfare recipients in the country. In Denmark, 80 percent of families on welfare are of “non-Western origin.” Migrants granted asylum in Germany have been using welfare handouts even to spend their holidays in the countries they left, such as Eritrea, allegedly in fear of their lives. (It is worth noting that welfare spending in Germany accounted for 27.2 percent of the total government budget in 1990, while today it is more than 50 percent.) It is only Switzerland, which lies outside the EU, which prevents residents who have been on welfare in the past three years from becoming citizens.

A return to Christianity would make the Europeans see the work ethic as an antidote to the shallow “bread and circuses” mentality. Christianity sees labor as a sacrificial act that can deepen and sustain one's covenant with God.  Theologically speaking, toil has a redemptive or sanctifying function. Work fits with the natural demands of a family structure. As marriages are falling apart and the symptoms of sloth seem ubiquitous, Europe could begin to cure its sense of boredom by rebuilding the citadels of faith with the bricks of labor and the mortar of love.

(Photo credit: Marco Arment. This photo has been cropped. CC BY 2.0.)

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Mihail Neamtu, Ph.D., is an Eastern European conservative author and public intellectual. He has written 10 books on American politics, Christianity, and Islam, as well as new trends in Marxist culture. His forthcoming publication is The Trump Arena: How did a Businessman Conquer the World of Politics?