Those wanting to understand what is happening in Europe can learn something from the chapters in those dusty American history books that deal with the Articles of Confederation.

For reasons I''ll get to, the lessons are limited, but still worth considering.

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Like Europe today, the states under the Articles of Confederation were sovereign. Unanimous consent of their representatives in Congress was required for raising taxes. As a result, there was never enough money in the national treasury, and it was impossible to pay off the debts incurred to fight the war against Britain.


The national governments of Europe have far longer histories than the colonies/states of the Articles of Confederation. It should be expected that they have problems in dealing with the errant among them that cannot reign in politicians who fear imposing restraints on folks who want things better, and object to taxation.

Think of the worthies from New York, Virginia, and Massachusetts and hold-out Rhode Island as you read about the heads of government in France and Germany trying to deal with Greeks and others.


It takes more than a while for governments to solve serious problems. They may go on forever, with only partial treatment and continued frustrations.

It took a decade and a half (from the end of the war to the adoption of the Constitution) for the United States to progress to the point where the central government could demand money in order to pay its bills. The Civil War a half-century later dealt partially with the unresolved regional conflict that was largely about slavery, then another century passed before the former slaves got full citiizenship. Equality for African-Americans is still a work in progress.

Europe today is much more complex than the fledgling United States. Now there are public services that people demand. At the end of the 18th century, people expected little from their government beyond rough roads and mail.


Globalized banking means that European governments threaten all of us if they do pay their debts when due. Europe also has the British phenomenon: in the community but not entirely, largely on its own financially.

The 27 national governments who are members of the European Union still claim independence. even while they gave much of that independence to bureaucrats who determine things like commercial, agricultural, and environmental standards. The big sticking point is financial autonomy, and the lack of central controls over each government''s budget.

Aspirations to include Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy in the European Union may have been overblown. Now efforts to integrate the likes of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia are testing even more the people who run France, Germany, and Great Britain.

We can hope that Europe has finished with its on and off civil war, lasting from the beginning of history until 1945, with later outbursts around the edges in what used to be Yugoslavia.


The institutions created since 1945 represent one of the great occasions of governing, but the bits left undone are showing themselves. The big states (equivalents of Massachusetts, New York and Virginia in the 18th century) want more central controls, especially over government spending. Money managers from the United States, Canada, Australia, China, and Japan, as well as Europe, with some players in India and South America, alter their investment decisions from day to day depending on what they hear about the efforts of France and Germany to agree with one another and persuade other European governments. Central bankers are no less important than heads of state, and they allocate some of their energy to demonstrating independence from the politicians running the countries in which they operate.

All that is a far cry from New York and Philadelphia in 1789.

Its fair to conclude that all democracies defy governing. That is partly what democracy is all about.

It is easier here in tiny Israel than in the European Union or the United States. The United States has almost 90,000 governmental units, each with some degree of autonomy. (Statistical Abstract, Table 428).


Israel has a strong central government, with local authorities severely limited in what they can do. Wags have a point when they say that Israel is a city (about the size of greater Los Angeles) disguised as a country.

Yet Israel like any political entity shows its strains. The most recent tempest in our teapot is between artists and entertainers on one side and the Minister of Sport and Culture about performing in one of the towns over the 1967 border. Artists and performers tend to be left of center and opposed to performing in settlements, and are protesting the initiative of the Minister to give an award to the artist who best exhibits on the subject of Zionism.

Politics is meant to deal with these strains. As the histories of the United States, Europe, and even Israel demonstrate, it is a process of coping with partial and imperfect arrangements, rather than solving problems once and for all. A scholar who worked along the borders between economics and politics described it as "muddling through." We can adopt that as the motto of democracy, and hope for the best from Europe.

 

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