Conservatives Want You to Endure a Depression

All-encompassing global misery will teach us lessons on how to live more economically ... right?

Listen up children: There is evil in the world. But it’s not the kind you’ve been taught about in Sunday School. The devil doesn’t actually smell like sulfur—no, no, no, that would be too obvious. The Dark Lord’s real stench is a mixture of feta cheese, roasted lamb meat, and sunshine … a heady mixture that actually carries the whiff of indolence, laziness, and profligacy. These are the real sins of the 21st century, and because they exist—far across the ocean, in an ancient civilization—you must be punished.

Yes, you.

Maybe you’ve been paying off your mortgage all these years. Maybe you’ve tightened your belt in the face of a rough economy. But maybe—three years after the banks fell apart and the economy went to hell—you’re starting to hope for and see signs of life. Your neighbor has been on food stamps, but just found a job to replace the one he lost last year. Now, though, it’s all threatened: the Greeks cant pay their debts. So you will pay the price.

Why should that be? Here’s the math.

But there is a way out. The Germans could bail out the Greeks.

Now, the Germans don’t actually want to bail out the Greeks, and who can blame them? Would you really want to see your hard-earned dollars go to subsidize somebody else’s sun-drenched vacation? Of course not. Then again, there’s that specter of global depression: Who wants to live through that?

Some American conservatives, that’s who.

The thinking is this: Overspending is bad. Particularly overspending to prop up a rickety welfare state. Now that those debts threaten to undermine the world economy, maybe we should just let it happen. Maybe it would be good for us to undergo a scorched-earth depression, to clear the earth of everything but a hardbitten Puritan work-until-you die ethos.

Here’s how (soon-to-be-ex) Philadelphia writer Rod Dreher put it in his blog at The American Conservative: “I wonder what would be worse: a Depression that serves as nemesis for the hubris of the Eurozone tower of Babel, or saving the Eurozone by throwing overboard the ‘precious social construct’ of moral hazard and an economic system that rewards virtue and punishes vice.”

This isn’t actually a close call: A Depression would be worse.

A Depression is—for millions of innocent, hard-working people—hunger and misery and Dust Bowls and upheavals and the rise of violent dictatorships. We know this because we’ve seen it before. Does a bailout reward people who shouldn’t be rewarded? Sure. But that’s a far, far superior moral choice than teaching those few people a lesson by condemning the rest of us to nasty, brutish lives.

This isn’t an isolated case: The temptation to righteous economic hellfire looms large in our politics. We have both left and rightwing populist movements in America angry that banks were bailed out in 2008. Republicans remain grumpy that the Obama Administration bailed out the auto industry, even though that seems to be working out well. And though there’s plenty of evidence the American economy could get growing again if wed only get rid of all these underwater home mortgages, it won’t happen because Rick Santelli went on TV and sneered at bailing out society’s “losers.”

It’s no fun watching undeserving people rake in cash. So some free-market conservatives (with the assent of some anti-corporate lefties) would have us let whole industries and countries collapse in order to set loose the “creative destruction” of capitalism. The problem is: Sometimes creative destruction is just … destructive.

“Which values will be rewarded?” New York Times conservative David Brooks asked in his Friday column. “Will it be effort, productivity and self-discipline? Or will it be bad governance, now and forever?”

Let’s reward the value of not harming millions of innocent people. Maybe it’s a sin to live beyond your means, but it’s a bigger moral failing to create or permit widespread misery. You shouldn’t be punished for Greece’s sins.