The cheerfully innumerate humanist enters into economic debate not just with trepidation but wearing a Kevlar vest and a combat helmet, plus a parachute for quick escape. But this non-economist might offer some insight into the psychology of the European players who, right now, are so baffling and frightening the punditariat in America. I refer to the French and the Scots, the Auld Alliance, as it’s called, after the—well, old—alliance that brought the late-medieval and early-modern kingdoms of Scotland and France together against the English. (There is still a pub in the Marais, in Paris, with just that name.) Why, we hear, are French politicians so reluctant to put up a fight against Angela Merkel and the politics of austerity, despite the harm they’ve done to the French economy? How can the Scots consider disuniting themselves from the English, when it’s plain that the economic consequences are likely to be disastrous?
First, the French. It is hard to imagine a worse Presidency—or, for that matter, a more embarrassing life—than the one François Hollande has been suffering through lately. So why doesn’t he do the obvious thing and, as he threatened again and again during the election campaign, in 2012, defy Merkel, say to hell with the constraints imposed by the euro, and allow himself a shot at rehabilitation, if not actual reëlection? The answer is simple. If the French don’t do what the Germans demand, the Germans won’t do what the French desire: if the French don’t undertake “structural reform,” then the Germans might refuse to remain tied down within Europe, never acting again as an entirely independent power. If the French don’t do what the Germans demand, and the Germans what the French desire, the project of European union might collapse, and, with it, seventy or so years of national purpose and hope. Even a French President might consider that much worse than a failed French Presidency.
This play between demand and desire is subtle but essential. The old image, often repeated in France, was that Europe was a French jockey mounted on a German horse. The Germans, in other words, supplied the raw muscle, the French the suppler mind. But the reality was always more like that of a French poodle mounted on a German bear: it is the bear’s good disposition, not the rider’s ingenuity, that lets the circus act go on. The euro, French politicians of all but the extreme left and right believe, helps insure this, and so supporting all the German strictures concerning the euro is essential. The rise of the far-right National Front is frightening but, rightly or wrongly, not really credible to the political class in France; the end of the euro, though, is terrifying and completely plausible to it. This logic may be mistaken. But it is the logic in place.
Would the end of the euro really be so bad for France? Doubtless there is an argument to be made that the euro was a misconceived project—unlucky in its timing, unwieldy in its reach. But this is to ignore the real impress that history leaves on peoples. For the French, the euro is not some bureaucratic notion dreamed up in Brussels. It is a catastrophic life-insurance policy that France, and the rest of Europe, has written for itself against the possibility of a revived German nationalism. (The crucial number to keep in mind is not the value of the currency but the number of European deaths in the thirty years between 1914 and 1944: thirty million.) A forward-moving European Union has created an extraordinary island of prosperity and peace in the thousands of years of European war. No one right now can believe that, if the euro failed today, tomorrow morning the French and the Germans would reënact Verdun. But Yugoslavia was also a comfortably working union for a while—and, when it failed, the Serbs and the Croats and the Bosnians were soon not only out of one another’s pockets but also at one another’s throats. Unifying big, diverse regions into single political entities is costly, but the disastrous costs of disunion have been demonstrably huge.
Irrationalities are as essential to dissolving unions as they are to maintaining them. Scotland, which is just now voting on independence, is also, we’re told, acting against its self-evident economic interests—or, at the very least, acting with huge, unfunded optimism. Once again, as is so often the case in the twentieth century, the atavistic thrill of nationalism is ballooned up by the blithe certainty that it will somehow magically lead to a progressive paradise. As Canadians alone remember, the province of Quebec, in two referendums, did, or came close to doing, the same thing with the same unfounded belief. It is easy to say that such a move makes no sense, but nationalism is almost always a more powerful drug than is the promise of continued prosperity. The irony is that many Scottish nationalists see the larger European Union as their alternative to the apparently stifling British one, though E.U. membership for an independent Scotland would be far from guaranteed, and would affect everything from the politics of emigration to the price of scotch. Nationalists in Quebec believed something similar, holding out the dubious hope that the United States would be a welcoming market for and partner with a monolingual French Quebec in ways that Canada somehow was not.
If ideologies and identities did not affect our economic interests, we would have no need of politics, and could simply turn the management of our countries over to Saint-Simonian technocrats. Economic systems are irrational in part, and sometimes in very large part. Asking why the French Socialists are prepared to sacrifice for the Germans is like asking why working people in Kansas vote Republican against their apparent economic interests. It is because their interests, as they perceive them, are not exhausted, or even partially inventoried, by their wallets. Most of our poorer Southern and rural states are convinced that they are to the rest of America what the Germans are to Europe: hard workers who subsidize their dissolute neighbors. That the financial reality is the reverse is not a tellable truth. Maybe it’s inefficient and unjust that big cities in the North subsidize rural America—Northern cities should rise up and demand an adjustment, or we’ll leave!—but the idea of national union remains so essential to American identity that it never happens, because we understand, instinctively, that this is the price we pay for it. (Listen to the summer hit “Chicken Fried” and think of the huge expenditures and steady income transfers that made it possible for the Zac Brown Band to both resolutely enumerate all that is good in the once Confederate state of Georgia and praise the Stars and Stripes as the only flag worth dying for.)
You will never understand a nation’s psyche by inventorying its interests. You have to grasp its memories, its paranoias, its traumas, and its irrationalities—its history, in other words. The Scots are prepared to accept an enormous risk in order to be independent. The French Socialists are prepared to accept an enormous risk in order to prevent the Germans from being so. Money makes memory. But memory makes money first.