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Europe’s Pain without Gain

Political leaders have often asked citizens to sacrifice personal freedoms and comforts in the name of secularized spiritual entities, such as the nation or the state – and citizens have eagerly obliged. Why, then, has the rhetoric of sacrifice under the banner of austerity proven ineffective in Europe’s current crisis?

VITORIA-GASTEIZ – In a recent interview, French President François Hollande made the crucial, but often forgotten, point that there are limits to the level of sacrifice that can be demanded of the citizens of southern Europe’s financially distressed countries. To avoid turning Greece, Portugal, and Spain into collective “correctional houses,” Hollande reasoned, people need hope beyond the ever-receding horizon of spending cuts and austerity measures.

Even the most rudimentary understanding of psychology supports Hollande’s assessment. Negative reinforcement and delayed gratification are unlikely to achieve their goals unless there is a perceived light at the end of the tunnel – a future reward for today’s sacrifices.

Public pessimism in southern Europe is largely attributable to the absence of such a reward. As declining consumer confidence and household purchasing power deepen the recession, projections of when the crisis will end are repeatedly pushed back, and those bearing the brunt of austerity are losing hope.

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