Can Markets Force Fiscal Discipline?

Today’s market meltdown was triggered by the fear that Greece’s financial problems will spread to other European governments, and then to the United States. Greece’s problems can be described simply: The government cannot afford to pay the debts it owes because it has expanded the welfare state at the behest of its ignorant, greedy citizens. Moreover, the problems of Greece will spread to other Euro-zone nations if and as they incur debt in order to bail out Greece. (Recommended reading: “The Mother of All Bubbles.”)

Now, change “Greece” to the “United States” and you have a perfect description of what is likely to happen in this country if “our” government continues to drive us along the road to Europeanism.

The question of the day is whether the strongly negative response of financial markets to the situation in Europe will cause Europe’s “leaders” — and our own — to re-think their commitment to fiscal profligacy. Or, as seems more likely, will those “leaders” be so fearful of reneging on their irredeemable promises to their political constituents that they fall back on the time-honored “remedy” known as hyperinflation?

Hyperinflation — which is easy enough for central bankers to engineer — “solves” the problem of debt by smothering it under a mountain of new money. The problem with that “solution,” of course, is that it affects not just a government’s creditors but every economic actor. Real economic activity grinds to a near-standstill as vendors raise their prices to unaffordable levels in anticipation of facing even higher prices for their factors of production. Entrepreneurs give up on business formation for the same reason. In the end, a vibrant economy based on money and credit is reduced to a stagnant, near-subsistence economy based on personal relationships and barter.

Which way will Europe and the United States go? I have little confidence that our “leaders” will choose the path of fiscal discipline. They are especially unlikely to choose the path that encourages economic growth by shrinking the welfare state.

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