Thursday, August 04, 2011

Could the Taxi Strike Be Good for Greece in the Long Run?

Over the past few weeks, Greece has been rocked by a nation-wide taxi strike that has been, at times, comic, tragic, violent, and deeply embarrassing. Yet the battle may turn out to be a good thing. Of course, I do not mean the immense inconvenience that it has caused to thousands of people nor do I have in mind the occasional violence to which taxi drivers have succumbed. Instead, I mean that the country’s political mood needed such an event. Weeks earlier, the government had almost collapsed amidst a highly contentious vote on the “medium term strategy.” By witnessing such a crass and indefensible strike, Greek society may be reminded what this crisis is all about.

In an economic crisis, justice and fairness can be brushed aside for the sake of necessity. Governments do things that are expedient but not necessarily just – they focus on what can be done versus on what should be done. Cutting pensions and raising taxes have been “easy” and they have allowed the Greek government to close a fiscal hole quickly. But these policies are hardly “fair.” They are justified on the basis that they need to happen.

Over time, however, expediency and fairness clash. The people that have borne the burden of the “adjustment” will demand that the pain be more evenly split: others have to pay as well. That anger has manifested itself through demonstrations, and in extremis, violence. It can also be seen in the rising popularity of the (arguably) most populist party (far-right LAOS) as well as by the growing number of people who say they would vote for no one if elections were held today. To sustain political support, the government needs to be seen as fair – going after tax evaders, for example, is important not only because it brings revenue but because it is evidence that everyone is partaking in the pain.

So why might the taxi strike be good for Greece? Because it demonstrates quite vividly what this political and economic crisis is all about: a fight between privilege and non-privilege in the public and private sectors. When the VP of the taxi union in Salonika says that, “you cannot have every unemployed and bitter person get a taxi license,” he’s saying that I have a privilege, and that you, the unemployed, should look elsewhere for work. When 100+ professions say that, of course, where can one really find work anymore?

How the Greek crisis plays out will depend on the answer that Greeks give to this question: how did we end up in this position? Events such as the taxi strike make it more likely that the answer is no longer “because our politicians are corrupt” (which they are) but rather a broader admission that it is “because the state spends too much money and the private sector has too many restrictions.” The restrictions in taxis are just one of many that have to go. By reacting so badly, the taxi drivers have showed how unreasonable those restrictions can be and how they serve no purpose except to enrich the privileged insiders. By demonstrating this to the Greek public, the taxi drivers may end up doing the country a great deal of good.

2 comments:

  1. Another great piece. Your coverage of the crisis has been very enjoyable and informative.

    Many thanks

    Constantine

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you Constantine - I appreciate it.

    ReplyDelete

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