Political leaders keep serving up a menu of sometimes exotic, but usually similar versions of popular choice. Then they find they can’t deliver on voters’ desires and democracy looks like it’s not working. So often the heart of the issue is economic. It is in the fact that too many people in too many countries do not like what they get from democracy’s dividend. This is why I say that we are faced with the prospect of a separation if not complete divorce of democracy and capitalism.
Greece is and has always been pivotal in its location at the edge of Europe. It has been the pivot point of historic economic and cultural events in the past, and I think this may be true of its recent disruption.
At the time Greece was lurching into the economic abyss almost 10 years ago, I remember stating that the country has never been defined in five-year periods of its history. Over 2,500 years of punching above its weight shows the strength, courage and resilience of its people. So Greece went first in pitching into economic and political instability – a slide of indecision masked as promises to the public of a new agenda and a modern outlook – resulting in failed hopes and expectations, as well as economic pain for its people.
Now we have seen very similar troubles emerge across Europe, compounded by the disruptions in the Middle East and North Africa that have sent waves of refugees into what were already unsettled communities. No wonder populism took hold. Capitalism was not working for the citizens of the world’s oldest democracy!
So, what has Greece taught us? Having tried all the options, we know now that populism – really a form of fake promises – does not improve anything. Theories and supposed systems also don’t work unless they deliver the tangible outcomes that people want and can rely on. This is where “elitism” becomes the hallmark of protest: Whether conservative or socialist in character, notions of reform do not put bread on the table. Rather, the failure of the elites makes people mistrustful of expertise and appointed leadership. Reform is real when people can eat and work and save and plan. When they can see hope for their children and their dreams.
Where do we look? Ironically, there are lessons in the behavior of autocrats. When I look at the focus of China’s leadership, I see a relentless pursuit of improved living standards. Working in Asia when the four tiger economies of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore were beginning to roar, I witnessed strong economic growth by top-down visionary leaders that were in pseudo-democracies. They earned their mandate, just like in today’s China, because all their citizens benefited by their investments in tomorrow. Work hard, earn the right to invest in tomorrow. Have a plan. Have a vision. Inspire your people. In these cases, and others I could cite, the evidence is plain and reform has delivered or is delivering.
Which is not to say that Greece or anyone else needs to give up on its democratic principles. Rather, we need to accept one basic premise. The fundamentals must change. Democracy needs to adjust to re-establish capitalism that is good for all its citizens. Not socialism – we know that doesn’t work. Rules that expand the state are misguided – that’s what got Greece into trouble in the first place.
We need rules to allow the market to give access to all; to provide education that’s the right of all citizens, not just the very wealthy. We need rules that encourage hard work and rewards for that work. And we need to attract investment. We need governments to be elected based on policies that they stick to, policies that encourage a different form of capitalism – an inclusive capitalism that focuses on the long term, not the rhetoric that wins elections in the short term.
By any definition, the message from Greece – and for Greeks – is that normal is the past. Normal is not what we want today. When people rail against elitism they are not burning books or stoning scientists. They are protesting the results. The results are poor from too many leaders who claimed superior ideas and knowledge based on the past. Too many people have seen too much hardship and uncertainty delivered by people who claimed confidently to know better. The answer to this problem is not at the top, where credibility has been exhausted. At least not the top orders of power. It must be in the people themselves.
Hope is the cure for populism. People with hope can fix things and grow things and build a community of strength. How do we acquire that most tangible of intangibles? The answer is before our very eyes. We are at the beginning of a technological revolution. Greece and Europeans lag the US, China and even Israel, who are leading the way. Yet young Greeks are very agile, entrepreneurial and tech-savvy. I’ve witnessed this first-hand at the charity I co-founded, The Hellenic Initiative. THI has funded young entrepreneurs at its annual Venture Fair which takes place in Athens (the next one will be held on July 1).
In my view, a good place to start to remedy the ills of Greece is by doubling down and investing in our talented youth in Greece, by building policies around an innovation ecosystem, by encouraging them through tax policies to stay in Greece. We have a good example starting in Thessaloniki. Let’s get creative. Let’s wrap a special economic zone around one or more of the beautiful islands in the Aegean or Ionian. Who wouldn’t want to live there? Invite the world to come and invent and innovate there. Send our millennials to build their companies there. In the digital age, you can scale from anywhere.
Like Singapore did and is still doing, or Israel – similar populations, similar issues. Seizing the future back in the post-war period, Singapore was created by a small segment of the Malayan and Chinese population that needed a separate home. A once-swampy island with no great attributes aside from a modest port and some colonial buildings, Singapore thrives today. Why? Because Singapore’s statesmen focused on the young and on the future. Its form of capitalism was inclusive and aspirational for its people and its future generations. Aspirational hopes for its country, inspirational vision from its leadership, which created perspiration from its people. Aspiration, inspiration, perspiration – a simple and effective recipe.
As we embrace the new definition of democracy and its partner, capitalism, in the digital era, why not lead it from democracy’s birthplace?
Andrew N. Liveris is chairman of The Hellenic Initiative.