I recently read an article by Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal. He offered some reflections on the national economic disaster faced by the nation of Greece. He makes the point that Greece’s problems are only partially economic. The other major part is one of character. The problem is not that the Greek people are themselves the problem, but rather they have allowed to stand for far too long a system in which cheating the system is the only good way to survive. As a result, they often default to cheating the system and to electing politicians who promise to help them do so both as a people and as a nation. Stephen’s final point is that with the election of a far left socialist leader, the Greek people have very well hastened the day when they reach the end of their rope and their economic fantasy trip will end.
As I read the article I couldn’t help but think about the arguments made by Anthony Codevilla in his book, The Character of Nations. It’s depressingly soaked in pessimism regarding the state of the world, but it’s a good read and he makes a number of good (and well researched) points regarding the way the policies of a nation affect the character of people of that nation, but also how the character of the people of a nation affect the policies of that nation. There is a back and forth relationship wherein one affects the other and vice versa. He uses Russia under Soviet control as an example. The character of the people dissolved almost entirely under that evil, evil system. Like the Greek system, it encouraged laziness and lying and cheating. Well, it turned many of the people into lazy, lying cheaters.
The same thing seems to have happened in Greece. The people have been told for so long that they can get something for nothing if they know the right ways to work around the system that they won’t accept for their national leaders anyone but those who assure them they can continue getting something for nothing (the other part is communicated in a sly wink to the side). The complete dissolution of the Greek economy will affect markets around the world to be sure. But, traders will be wise to have the moral fortitude to recognize that the compassionate thing to do for the Greek people at this point is not to prop them up yet again with another loan they cannot and will not repay, but to let them fail and finally taste the fruit of their choices. What Greece needs is a real spiritual revival to restore their character. Perhaps if they took time as a nation to study the most widely published and sold book in the world that was originally written entirely in Greek they might help themselves.
Stephens expresses hope that they will belatedly discover “the virtues of free markets that allow the rule of law to take root.” I see his point, but with due respect to his no doubt being profoundly more economically astute and trained than I am, I think he’s mistaken. There are not virtues inherent in free markets. Virtues are found in the people taking part in the free markets. Free markets do not remain free if the people participating in them are not virtuous. Furthermore, it is the rule of law that allows free markets to flourish, not the other way around. Historically speaking, the rule of law has arisen and held sway only in those places where the Christian worldview has been embraced on a national level. Indeed, no other worldview has anything like the commitment to rule of law that Christians have given to the world. The Founding Fathers of this nation recognized all this and understood in an incredibly prescient way that the system they were establishing would only last as long as the virtue of the people did. That’s why Washington was such an important choice for our first leader. His commitment to virtue (and specifically Christian virtue whether he was really a deist at heart or not) was absolute. Well, foundational leaders have a lasting impact on their people and we are fortunate to have his.
But notice that as the moral character of our nation has declined and precipitously so in recent years, our markets have become less and less free. Regulations have blossomed. Freedom has decreased. We are still a good ways ahead of the rest of the world, but we are now heading in the same direction they are instead of leading. Os Guinness’s book, A Free People’s Suicide, makes this point and rather profoundly so. Prayerfully Greece will serve as a warning call to the rest of the world (and us in particular) of not simply the dangers of socialism as an economic system by revealing its logical end, but of the impact of character on national economies. I would, however, be lying if I said I was terribly hopeful.
As Greece approaches the brink of failure we as Christians need to pray for the people living there as the days ahead of them are likely to be much more difficult than those behind them. In particular we need to pray for our brothers and sisters who are no doubt working feverishly to effect a change in the hearts and minds of their fellow citizens and allow their teetering nation to survive. Let us also be sure to not miss the lessons inherent in this tragedy. Character counts. It counts individually. It counts nationally. Yet without the power and impact of the gospel, character cannot survive. Let us continue striving to impact our culture with the gospel power we bear as representatives of Jesus the Christ that we might shore up the kind of character that will allow the freedom — both economic and otherwise — we so cherish to last for many generations to come.