The Illogic of Czech President Vaclav Klaus
What accounts for Czech President Vaclav Klaus’s extreme skepticism about Europe’s future? Could he simply be channeling Ayn Rand?
September 30, 2010
I can sympathize with East Europeans, especially the generation born between 1940 and 1970. Old enough to remember much of the drab and oppressive nature of Communist life, they saw the shift to freedom only when they were in the middle of their careers.
While they were young enough to still make a career change to the new world, they weren’t young enough to start without any baggage, at a minimum in the form of several working years wiled away under Communism.
As a result, their careers and earnings potential lagged behind those who were born after 1970 — a generation that could take full advantage of a changed world.
There were no years wasted away in the economics or physics departments of communist-era institutions for these youngsters. From the start, they had their choice of high-end career options, from investment banks to high-priced consulting and accounting firms. The world was their oyster.
No doubt, had Vaclav Klaus been born later, had he received what a great European leader, in a much more treacherous context, once called “the grace of a late birth date” in the 20th century, the world would have been his oyster.
Alas, for a man born in 1941, this was not to be. True, Mr. Klaus successively served in prestigious posts in the Czech Republic, including finance minister, prime minister and now president.
These are all proud achievements, but for a man of Mr. Klaus’s near-limitless estimation of himself, it just isn’t enough. At a minimum, in early 2013, when he will finish his second term as president, he will be 71 years old.
That means, unlike Tony Blair, who was 54 years old when he left the prime ministership in the United Kingdom after ten years in office, Mr. Klaus will not have a promising, money-rich career ahead of himself.
The injustice to Mr. Klaus, with communism lasting until 1990, was that he was already in full bloom age-wise when he became finance minister in December 1989. Compare that to Mr. Blair and David Cameron, who both moved into Downing Street at the tender age of 43.
With that as background, it is understandable that President Klaus has always been an impatient and irascible character. In part, that is a consequence of his remarkable intelligence, even though that trait in no way justifies such behavior.
But it does explain his peculiar views of the European landscape, of what constitutes both progress and regress.
His inner confusion became fully apparent in his Washington speech in September 2010. He opened up with chiding the Americans that they “do not have a proper understanding of the European integration.”
He explained that, in Europe, “integration had turned into unification, liberalization into centralization of decision making, into harmonization of rules and legislation,” and so forth.
He then went on to say that “especially for those who spent most of their lives in a very authoritative, oppressive and non-functioning communist regime, the ongoing weakening of democracy and free markets on the European continent is an undesirable development.”
Also worrisome, in Mr. Klaus’s eyes, is the gradual shift “towards the ever-expanding, over-generous welfare system.”
Those latter statements may come as a complete surprise to, say, French President Nicolas Sarkozy who, for all his faults, is currently fighting with a lot of democracy.
And it must surprise the French people as well, who are not exactly enamored with Monsieur Sarkozy’s efforts to rein in that welfare system. Never mind the sentiments in Greece.
Or, for that matter, ask the unemployed in Germany, who are receiving benefits more or less in line with those in the United States, which aren’t exactly known to be overly generous.
Now, without a doubt, while benefit levels in Western Europe are shrinking, they are still quite generous compared with those in Central and Eastern Europe.
Here again, one surmises Mr. Klaus’s analysis is tainted by some envy — and by suppressed frustration about his country, sadly, having been on the wrong side of the curtain.
It is one thing to bemoan historic injustices, or disadvantages, in a forthright manner. It is quite another to use these sentiments in a circuitous, if not deceptive, manner — by projecting one’s own frustrations about one’s nation’s past onto the present and future of the European enterprise.
The EU surely has its problems, but — viewed in a broader context, including past European history and the complexity of getting any such endeavor executed — it is not doing anywhere nearly as poorly as Mr. Klaus would have his audiences believe.
The illogic of Mr. Klaus’s position becomes fully evident in his critique of the euro. He said, “The idea of the single European currency is a dangerous project which will either bring big economic problems or will lead to the undemocratic centralization of Europe.”
One can certainly make that argument, but it is actually a hard one to make for Vaclav Klaus. After all, one of his core beliefs is that Europe is already on the road to perdition because it is way too centralized, choking markets and democracy.
All the more surprising then to find that Mr. Klaus argued at Johns Hopkins University that the eurozone is bound for failure because it “has not led to any measurable homogenization of its member states’ economies.”
Which way is it, Mr. Klaus? You had us almost convinced that Europe is suffering from a stultifying, big brother-like embrace — and now you declare the eurozone hasn’t had anywhere near enough homogenization?
What this serious logical misstep makes plain is, once again, that Mr. Klaus’s ill will about the EU is rooted in the saddening, maddening experiences of growing up under communism and the not-so-subtle tutelage of Moscow.
That heritage is not to be made light of. It is a tragedy for many a nation — and many peoples and many more individuals. But it is no sufficient reason to malign Europe per se.
Against the basic odds, which are tremendous, the European integration venture is doing quite nicely. And, yes, the Balkans are still an unresolved issue and still not fully pacified. But it is an issue that goes back hundreds of years — and, against that backdrop, progress is not so glacial even there.
In the end, it becomes clear that President Klaus’s closest soulmate in the firmament of modern political and economic thought is probably none other than Ayn Rand, the Russian-born libertarian and — tragically, as it has turned out for many everyday Americans in the current financial crisis — the guru/muse of Alan Greenspan, the former head of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
As Gurcharan Das lays out so compellingly, Ayn Rand can only be properly understood if one takes her growing up in pre-revolutionary Russia into very close consideration.
Her unbending views of the sanctity of property and the pivotal nature of free markets are a direct reflection of her — coincidentally fully “bourgeois” — family being expropriated by revolutionary soldiers.
Again, as with Mr. Klaus’s unexpressed lament about the disgrace of his too early birth in 20th century Europe, any human being can sympathize with young Ayn’s reaction to seeing that injustice hoisted upon her family.
But for both Vaclav Klaus and Ayn Rand, it is an entirely different matter to build a seemingly coherent, future-oriented and predictive social theory on that basis.
Just because Ayn Rand’s father lost his pharmacy — and because Vaclav Klaus spent his formative years under the Soviets — does not mean that all government is bad and anti-free.
Both Rand and Klaus should have had the intellectual fortitude and forthrightness not to mix up enlightened, socially balanced European-style governments with the oppressiveness of either Czarist or revolutionary Russia, or the Iron Curtain, for that matter.
EU governments are far from perfect. But unlike Ayn Rand and Vaclav Klaus apparently do, to their credit they can claim that they do not perceive of themselves as infallible. They see themselves very much as an endeavor of human progress with its full scope of setbacks, hurdles and short-sightedness.
But what ails them is not any devotion to historical determinism or the systematic promulgation of socio-economic injustices, as Rand and Klaus would have us believe.
Rather, these governments and parliaments all struggle and strive to find the right balance between enough democracy and proper input from citizens — and the opposite phenomenon of endless input, where the focus on achieving useful results becomes lost.
Unlike Tony Blair, who was 54 years old when he left the UK prime ministership, Mr. Klaus will not have a promising, money-rich career ahead of himself.
Both Rand and Klaus should have had the intellectual fortitude not to mix up enlightened European-style governments with the oppressiveness of either Czarist or revolutionary Russia.
One surmises Mr. Klaus's analysis is tainted by some envy — and by suppressed frustration about his country, sadly, having been on the wrong side of the curtain.
The EU surely has its problems, but it is not doing anywhere nearly as poorly as Mr. Klaus would have his audiences believe.
Mr. Klaus's ill will about the EU is rooted in the saddening, maddening experiences of growing up under communism and the not-so-subtle tutelage of Moscow.