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Is Greece Ready for a Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher?

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. (Photo: Courtesy of the Greek Government)
Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. (Photo: Courtesy of the Greek Government)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. (Photo: Courtesy of the Greek Government)

I’ve written that it’s theoretically possible for Greece to pay its debts and restore prosperity. After all, it’s simply a matter of obeying fiscal policy’s Golden Rule and reforming a suffocating tax system.

But I’ve always figured none of that will happen because Greek voters would never vote for a government that favors Reagan-style or Thatcher-style economic reforms.

Economist Daniel J. Mitchell's Theorem of Societal Collapse

Economist Daniel J. Mitchell’s Theorem of Societal Collapse

Simply stated, there are too may Greek people living off the state. But that’s just part of the problem. An even bigger obstacle to reform is that the people have decided that it’s morally acceptable to mooch off the government.

As a result, I’ve assumed that Greece has passed a tipping point because the moral foundation of Greek society has been corroded by dependency. And it’s very difficult to put that toothpaste back in the tube.

But maybe I’ve been wrong. Courtesy of the great people at the Atlas Network, here’s some remarkable polling data from Greece.

…the people may finally be fed up with big government, runaway spending, public-sector corruption, and job-killing regulations. A recent in-depth survey, published by the daily Kathimerini newspaper and the new think tank Dianeosis, reveals that Greek society seems to be experiencing an ideological sea change.

On a philosophical level, Greeks seem to be embracing the principles of classical liberalism.

In Greece, the term “liberalism” retains its classical meaning of support for individual liberty, free markets, and social tolerance. The latest finding from the Dianeosis poll shows that 27 percent of respondents identify as either liberal or neoliberal, together making the largest ideological group for the country’s overall population. These ideas have taken even stronger hold among the rising generation, with an astonishing 50 percent of Greek youth identifying as either liberals or neoliberals.

And this translates into greater support for small-government policies.

About 60 percent agree that government is intervening too much in economic matters, and thereby prevents the private sector from creating jobs and wealth.

Here’s some of the relevant polling data.

It’s also encouraging to see that there was movement in the right direction between April 2015 and December 2016.

On a policy level, the Greeks now seem to recognize that the state is too big.

Even more telling is that the majority of Greeks, 55 percent, believe that lower taxation is preferable even if that results in less government welfare. This finding is particularly important because two years ago only 39.2 percent agreed with that statement.

Here are those numbers from the survey.

The last bit of good news from the survey is that Greeks have positive feelings about market-oriented terms.

Greeks today also seem to show overwhelming support for many fundamental concepts of the free-market tradition. About 73 percent agreed that “markets” have a positive connotation…a primary reason for this turn toward free markets is that the government regimes in Greece have clearly failed, thereby tainting their devotion to destructive statism and populism. This has caused many Greeks to consider economic freedom as a viable solution for the country’s devastating problems.

On the other hand, the country they most want to mimic is Sweden.

And it’s not even close, though I wonder if this chart would look different if Switzerland and Hong Kong were options.

You may be wondering (like me) how the Greeks can tell pollsters they want smaller government while simultaneously picking Sweden as a role model?

The pessimistic answer is that Greeks don’t know what they’re talking about. Or maybe they are hypocrites, willing to pay lip service to economic liberty but ultimately yearning for a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

The optimistic answer is that Sweden actually is a pretty good role model.

Check out this comparison of Greece and Sweden, based on data from Economic Freedom of the World. Sweden is ranked #27, which is in the top-20 percent of nations for economic liberty. Greece, by contrast, is way down at #116.

Yes, both countries have terrible fiscal policy, but it turns out that Sweden is very market-oriented in areas like money, trade, regulation, and rule of law. And even though it still has a long way to go, Sweden significantly improved fiscal policy in the 1990s and has even enjoyed some modest improvement in recent years.

That’s definitely not the case in Greece.

In other words, I certainly don’t mind if Swedish policy is the short-run goal for Greek voters. If they ever get to that point, then I’ll try to convince them to go the Full Hong Kong.

P.S. In the real world, are there any examples of countries that have escaped statism and enjoyed something akin to a Greece-to-Sweden jump in economic liberty?

The answer is yes. Chile would be an obvious example, as would certain post-Soviet Bloc nations such as Estonia.

It would be great to add Greece to the collection.

Written by
Contributing Economist

Daniel J. Mitchell is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute, and a top expert on tax reform and supply-side tax policy. Mitchell’s articles can be found in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Investor’s Business Daily, and the Washington Times. He is the author of "The Flat Tax: Freedom, Fairness, Jobs, and Growth," and co-author of "Global Tax Revolution: The Rise of Tax Competition and the Battle to Defend It."

Latest comments

  • Many EU countries are reversing coarse…Trump winning the Presidency has helped many to see the problems in their country

  • I’ll be surprised if somebody wakes up from their ouzo/olive fueled slumber to do that.

    I really n… https://t.co/322QzWrvEL

  • Those on the Continent would never elect a Reagan/Thatcher.