Greece’s problem is not an absence of leaders who offer magical solutions, it is the weakness of its democracy to teach society how best to learn from crisis.
The voices are growing for a leader, or at least for a committee of wise men to tackle the arduous task of pulling the country out of a crisis with multiple layers. Some dream of a leader like Vladimir Putin, others will settle for a Barack Obama, while others will take anyone -at a pinch- who has the nerve and determination to save us.
The problem is that every easy answer to a complex crisis is a risky answer. It must, at the very least, come with a few difficult questions. If, therefore, a country is considered miserable because it is looking for heroes, then what is a country that is looking for leaders? Let us suppose that a leader appears, out of the blue, to take up this difficult task. How do we respond? Do we continue to dodge our taxes, pollute our environment and trample our laws, and end up blaming the leader for not living up to our expectations?
In his classic “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville argues that democracy is not good system of governance because it offers immediate solutions but because it offers sustainable results in the long term. “The defects and the weaknesses of a democratic government may very readily be discovered… whilst its beneficial influence is less perceptibly exercised.” The biggest advantage of a democracy is that it teaches society to solve its own problems. Democracy does not offer fish but teaches people to catch fish for themselves. It does not always turn out the best leaders but through trial and error it helps forge the institutions that will ensure that even the worst of them cannot wreak irreparable damage on society. The key is for every crisis to lead to the right conclusions; the wrong conclusion in this case is not that we lacked leaders but that we had more than we needed, and this resulted in the weakening of our institutions.
Greece’s problem is not an absence of leaders who offer magical solutions, it is the weakness of its democracy to teach society how best to learn from crisis. The system is built around the prime minister, giving him complete control. The prime minister’s office makes appointments in the justice system, it is served by Parliament and through the inflated state also controls many aspects of the private sphere. In one sense we have been fortunate to have had leaders with vision who succeeded in areas that were contentious in their time. But their successes were also our failures. We became complacent and instead of building problem-solving institutions we are looking for leaders to save us. We want to change the country without changing society.
For a system to be sustainable in the long term, it needs every one of its cogs and wheels to function better. It needs parliamentary deputies who will consider every decision rather than voting off the cuff, judges who pass judgement without thought for placating the government, independent authorities that can supervise without the supervision of ministers and a system of checks and balances that makes for a constructive democracy. A system of governance centered on a leader without these institutions in place is ripe for the picking of the demagogues and the parasites of the political system.
Published in Kathimerini newspaper 01.04.2009