Playing Chicken with Democracy

PRINCETON – In the increasingly nerve-wracking standoff between Greece and the European Union, the Greek authorities seem to be claiming a democratic mandate that extends beyond their country's borders. The new government, led by the far-left Syriza party, portrays itself not just as a negotiator trying to get a good deal for Greece, but as the champion of a solution to a supposedly European problem of excessive government debt. That stance fails to acknowledge that Greece's interlocutors have democratic responsibilities of their own.

Modern democratic politics can be thought of as involving two types of tasks: the formulation of laws based on general principles, and the redistribution of resources via government taxation and expenditure. Within a single country, these tasks are relatively uncomplicated. But a country's international relations can impose powerful constraints on its government.

Such constraints are particularly strong when the government must operate within a wider polity, as is true of Greece by virtue of its EU membership. But any process of integration, whether European or global, requires some adjustment of domestic preferences and laws. A government's ability to redistribute wealth will also be limited if raising taxes causes capital or high-income earners to flee the country.

In making its case for a reduction of Greece's debt burden, Syriza draws heavily on the history of Germany, its principal creditor and, in the eyes of many Greeks, their country's primary antagonist. According to Syriza's depiction of events, Germany's interwar experiment in democracy failed because international creditors imposed austerity. Germany and the EU, the argument goes, should apply that lesson to Greece.