On December 10-12, a group of 200 European citizens met in Florence, Italy for the third and final session of a citizen’s panel to discuss the future of European democracy. The meetings are part of an initiative called the Conference on the Future of Europe.
The Florence meeting, the third of its kind, presented ideas from regular citizens on policy reforms that could shape Europe’s future. Spanning topics from health care and climate change to taxes and welfare-state spending, the three citizens’ initiative meetings produced a long list of policy ideas that will be presented to the European Parliament next spring.
On the face of it, the Conference on the Future of Europe seems to be a good initiative. After all, the idea of a democracy is that the people have the last say about their own future, is it not?
The answer to this question is affirmative, of course: the very idea behind democracy is that people can make sure government respects their freedom and does not run amok down the lane of totalitarianism. By means of democratic elections, the people are put in charge of their own destiny.
In reality, the modern liberal democracy that we have come to take for granted is no longer as obvious a guarantee for our freedom as it once was. When detached from higher values, democracy becomes a conduit for values that run afoul with our own very freedom.
The Conference on the Future of Europe provides an interesting case study of this quiet conflict between democracy and freedom, two of our civilization’s most precious values, and the harm done in their name. What appears on the surface as an innocuous initiative aimed at bringing citizens’ voices to the attention of the European Parliament, is in reality a roadmap for unhealthy government growth. But more than that, the Conference symbolizes the forces that, again when left unattended, allow government to encircle our freedoms—under the very auspices of democracy.
But how could an ‘innocent’ citizens’ initiative for democracy bring about powers of government that would in any way pose any threat to our freedom?
To answer this question, we first need to remember that freedom is not only lost to boots and bayonets. We can, actually, vote away our own freedom. By giving up our rights to government, small slices at a time, we can lose control over our lives just as definitively as if it happened through open oppression.
No path to totalitarianism is paved more carefully than that which has a democratic rubber stamp on it. The Conference on the Future of Europe is a case in point, in part because it is not at all a citizens’ initiative. That may be how it presents itself, but in reality it is not at all a grassroots movement.
It is a bona-fide government project, started, operated and apparently funded by the European Union. Under its consilium tab, the European Parliament presents the Conference for the Future of Europe as a “joint undertaking” of the Parliament, the European Council and the Commission. The Conference is led by the three Presidents of these entities and has an Executive Board. Its role is to “oversee the work, process and organisation of the Conference.”
The oversight authority of the Board includes defining the topics that citizens get to discuss, and the forms under which those discussions may take place. Such management exposes the real purpose behind the Conference on the Future of Europe. If the policy ideas were genuinely from the grassroots—if they emerged organically through a free debate on terms set by the citizens—they would be more pluralistic compared to the policy agenda that is now on its way out from the Conference.
But why would the European Union feel the need to validate its policy agendas with a citizens’ initiative? More importantly: how is this a sign of problems with democracy itself?
To gain perspective on these questions, let us look at how Americans would respond to a citizens’ initiative that came out of U.S. Congress. The answer would be ridicule and contempt: people would call their elected officials and give them an earful of who works for whom. Senators and Congressmen coming home for townhalls would be duly read the riot act by their constituents.
In a country that is filled to the brim with grassroots initiatives—some sane and some less so—it is common for citizens to lobby their politicians and campaign for ballot initiatives in elections. A top-down initiative like this is entirely un-American.
However, it does not take an American perspective on democracy to see the problem with the EU trying to seek a citizens’ stamp of approval. The EU itself appears to know it suffers from democratic deficit, i.e., that it does not adequately represent its own people. Since it does not, it needs to validate its own policy agenda by means of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
A look at the policy recommendations from the Conference exposes it as an affront to the ideals of democracy and freedom. If the citizens of Europe were truly in charge, the outcome of the Conference would be a mosaic of different ideological preferences. Europeans are pluralistic at the ballot box and maintain a very diverse political landscape. Parliaments across the continent give voices to conservatives with nationalist leanings as well as old-style communists, and everything in between.
In fact, the European political and ideological landscape is more pluralistic now than it was when the first elections were held to the new European Parliament in the early 1990s. Against this background, it is striking how homogenous the policy proposals are that come out of the Conference on the Future of Europe.
Nowhere is this homogeneity, and its squarely statist implications, more conspicuously displayed than in a section of the preliminary Conference report called “Social protection and social security.” Every policy idea put forward here is designed to expand Europe’s already generous welfare states.
Even more eye-catching is how they all necessitate an expansion of the powers of the EU itself. This point, of course, becomes trivial in view of the fact that the EU itself started the Conference and set its policy agenda.
Among the many ideas for “social protection” are: universal basic income; regulatory limits on salary differences; a European minimum wage coupled with a shorter work week; expanded child-care spending; and so-called affordable housing.
The basic-income proposal is perhaps the best example of how a policy idea is made to look like it rose from a citizens’ groundswell, when in reality it is an EU-run campaign called European Citizens’ Initiative for Unconditional Basic Income. Its origin is not easy to establish, but the “about” link on their website (carefully hidden in the bottom banner) spells out the EU as the origin of the campaign with a home in the domain, europa.eu.
The basic-income proposal exemplifies how the Conference for the Future of Europe serves the purpose of legitimizing government policy by clothing it in democratic approval. It also exemplifies how the actual policy proposal serves to grow government, a purpose it shares with a proposal to regulate or legislate a cap on income differences. Government would set a cap on how big of a difference there can be between the salaries of a company’s highest and lowest paid employees. For example, if the permitted salary span is 10:1, the highest-paid person can earn at most ten times what the lowest-paid employee earns.
Together with practically every other policy idea coming out of the Conference, the basic-income and salary-difference proposals are poster children of a specific ideological agenda: socialism by means of economic redistribution.
Nowhere in the material thus far published by the Conference can we find distinctly conservative policy ideas. Bluntly: at no point do the policy proposals aim for a reduction of government and the return of government powers to the member states.
But, again, why does the EU see a reason to get a supposedly democratic stamp of approval on its own quest for more power?
The answer is painfully cynical: because government can. In a parliamentary democracy, the means to the exercise of government powers is in itself the stamp of approval of how those powers are used. If the European Union can gather what seems to be citizens’ approval for certain policy ideas, the Parliament can then bring those ideas through the process that makes those ideas legitimate.
As the powers of government expand by virtue of parliamentary democracy, the scope for individual freedom shrinks. Where freedom is in retreat, totalitarianism is on the rise.
A democratic government that was not encroaching on the freedom of its citizens would not have to advance its policy agenda under the auspices of democracy and freedom. Yet the Conference on the Future of Europe exemplifies this very practice, and it is made possible by the perceived benevolence of government itself.
This benevolence breaks down into two parts, each of which helps explain how democracy can indeed become an adversary of individual freedom. The first part is spelled out by Todd Huizinga in a brilliant essay for The European Conservative. Our modern democratic system, Huizinga explains, carries within it seeds of totalitarianism, seeds that we are only too reluctant to recognize.
Liberal democracy, he notes, necessitates a secularized citizen, whose “unbelief” allows government to replace God as man’s highest authority. Since the liberal democracy effectively demands the complete secularization of society, and since that same secularization leaves the field of authority wide open for government, Huizinga points to how the modern, liberal democracy makes us ripe and ready to “be swallowed up by the all-unifying system” of government.
Or, as the Democrat party in the United States put it in a campaign video before the 2012 election: “Government is the only thing that we all belong to.”
In the context of Huizinga’s sharp observations, the Conference on the Future of Europe takes on a very different role than its declared official purpose. It exemplifies his philosophical words of warning: what is in practice a series of gatherings of well-intended, future-minded Europeans is in reality an instrument for the expansion of government powers. This path of expansion is accepted, even endorsed by participating citizens precisely because government benevolently fills the void of authority that secularization has created.
The second part of the perceived benevolence of government is found in the welfare state. The practical function of the welfare state is to tax “the rich” and provide benefits to the rest of the population. Its principled function is to gradually reduce and eventually eliminate the economic differences between individual citizens.
Where economic redistribution grows, more and more citizens lose their economic independence. They rely critically on government for their daily bread, shelter, clothes, transportation and other needs.
The welfare state creates a void in the form of unfulfilled economic equality, then fills the void with its own powers. Entitlement benefits become the material embodiment of the spiritual void-fill that Huizinga identifies. But the welfare state also serves the purpose of perpetuating the growth of government under parliamentary democracy. Wherever citizens learn that they can vote themselves to work-free income and other benefits, they will legitimize government expansion by voting for it.
When citizens approve of government expansion in democratic elections, and when their votes result in more entitlement benefits for more people, opponents of big government will have to fight both socialism and democracy at the same time. This is the method for socialist success that Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal pointed to in Beyond the Welfare State from 1960.
Where more voters are promised more benefits, socialism works its way toward its end goal: the complete elimination of economic differences between individual citizens.
The expansion of the welfare state intersects with Huizinga’s “unbelieving” citizen. As the responsibility for providing for needs of individuals is gradually transferred from the individuals themselves to their government, the tie between effort and reward is severed. Inevitably, where people no longer need to support themselves, they gradually lose the ambition, even ability, to do so.
The welfare state rides comfortably on the pathway to totalitarianism that Todd Huizinga highlights. Where Huizinga emphasizes the individual’s loss of faith in God as the key to his unabridged subordination to government, the welfare state subordinates the individual by depriving him of his faith in self-determination.
A people that is spiritually hollowed out and economically paralyzed is a people without freedom. The biggest irony of our time is that freedom is gradually being lost through the benevolent proceedings of parliamentary democracy.
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.