Families are tricky. They stretch to outer limits our private sense of responsibility.

You are Diligent. You work hard and honestly, you treat everyone fairly, you are generous towards friends and family, but you dislike being exploited or ‘expected’ to help others who don’t do all they can to help themselves.

You have four siblings, Dopey, Grumpy, Lazy and Feckless:

  • Dopey does his best, but is dim and usually misses opportunities to do better; he appreciates favours from other family members, and now and then reciprocates in a cack-handed way
  • Grumpy works hard and has had more success in life, but begrudges others their success; she expects favours to be offered generously by other family members, but is ungrateful/dismissive when that happens and never offers favours in return
  • Lazy never tries hard, preferring the idea of the good life to the reality of the hard work needed to achieve it – she values favours, but usually does not reciprocate. Not exactly selfish or mean-spirited – just somehow air-headed and not that bothered
  • Feckless works hard but squanders the results on fun and parties – has no long-term plan and lives only for the moment

You may or may not be your siblings’ keeper. But if you have good fortune or they fall on hard times, how far might those siblings make a moral claim to part of your success?

Complex issues and emotions are involved:

  • The limits of generosity of the would-be giver – should Diligent be so generous to the others as to put his/her own immediate family’s welfare at risk?
  • A calculation by Diligent as to how far the favour will in fact be used well – better to give more support to someone who at least tries hard but usually fails, or to the sibling who is in more need but likely to fritter away any support given?
  • Does reciprocity or at least genuine gratitude come into play? Should Diligent’s generosity be affected by how far the individual recipients of generosity might extend favours if roles were reversed? Is it somehow better or more just to share more generously with people who are grateful, than with people who ‘expect’ support and then sneer at its level?
  • And underlying it all is a philosophy of how the world should work. Does Diligent believe that the best way for people to get through life is to take responsibility for their own fate, and that those who make miscalculations should themselves bear the cost of the consequences and not try to get others to bail them out?
  • Or does some sort of abstract ‘solidarity’ automatically kick in, so that any sibling falling on hard times through the results of selfishness or idleness or greed or fecklessness or incompetence can call on Diligent to sacrifice some of the results of his/her hard work and thrift?
  • If that ‘solidarity’ principle applies, how far might Diligent insist that the selfish/idle/greedy sibling be shown to have mended his/her ways as a condition for support? Is it not heartless to expect everyone to behave well as Diligent invariably does?
  • If Diligent subsidises his siblings’ poor work, is he doing them benefit or harm in the long run?

A lot going on here at the most human micro-level, even in the happiest families.

So welcome to the European Union, namely Article 122 of the THE TREATY ON THE FUNCTIONING OF THE EUROPEAN UNION (Consolidated Version – emphasis added):

  1. Without prejudice to any other procedures provided for in the Treaties, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may decide,in a spirit of solidarity between Member States, upon the measures appropriate to the economic situation, in particular if severe difficulties arise in the supply of certain products, notably in the area of energy.
  2. Where a Member State is in difficulties or is seriously threatened with severe difficulties caused by natural disasters or exceptional occurrences beyond its control, the Council, on a proposal from the Commission, may grant, under certain conditions, Union financial assistance to the Member State concerned. The President of the Council shall inform the European Parliament of the decision taken.

Should Diligent Germany now help Feckless/Lazy/Grumpy/Dopey Greece and the other PIIGS?

The rule when the Eurozone was set up were clear. No bail-outs for countries not accepting financial discipline!

The threat of this awful implacable inflexible harshness was thought to be a necessary and sufficient condition to compel countries which had no serious tradition of running a currency successfully to realise that they were being promoted to the major league, and had to lift their game.

Ha ha. That boring northern European stuff is not for us gay southern European types. Who dares deny us our carefree way of life? We always knew that we wouldn’t accept all that drab discipline and paperwork and transparency – and taxes! And you stuffy Germans knew that too, even if you say now that you trusted us to behave like you.

So what’s the problem now? If there’s a crisis now, it’s your fault, not ours. You knew for years exactly what was going on, but looked the other way.

Wha-a-a-a-t? You’re saying now that we have misbehaved and that you won’t bail us out? That we have to tidy our room, work harder, tighten our belts and be poorer? That we are to get less lavish dinners than everyone else here? For years to come?

Are you patronising and selfish oh-so-clever people crazy as well? Where’s the solidarity in that?

Don’t you realise that what you are dealing with here?

When you brought us into your neat, tidy house, the whole point was that we would set the limits of general tidiness, not you! Which means that if you now insist that we tidy our room, we’ll wreck the whole place – just to spite you – dragging everything down to our level.

So what would you rather have? A complete mess, or a quiet life?

Borrow some money from some other suckers such as your own taxpayers’ kids if you have to. It will be years before they realise that you can’t repay it.

And puh-lease. Don’t start whinging that the Irish are behaving well, so we should do the same. If they want to make a scrawny fool of themselves by going on a long-term diet, that’s their problem.

It’s just not our style, here in the sunny south. It’s our culture, see? And Europe is all about celebrating diverse cultures.

Now excuse me. It’s long lunch time – I’ll send you the bill later. Then I’ll need a siesta.

* * * * *

All of which goes to show that the Eurozone crisis is exposing the very heart of European Solidarity (or not). Since it goes to really very simple issues of trust and responsibility

And perhaps there just are limits to trust and responsibility. Perhaps it makes no sense to set up supranational institutions which ultimately are unable to cope with these simple values, as the political legitimacy of those institutions is grounded not in trust and responsibility backed by law and elections, but in vainglorious elite ambition and hoping for the best. In the end, it just can’t – and more importantly won’t – work that way.

See also in the USA. The Tea Party tendency is protesting that government is Just Too Big:

… more and more people are waking up to the fact that this just doesn’t work. We don’t have the money to keep throwing more and more of it into dysfunctional public schools, overpriced state colleges and government at all levels. In the competitive world we all live in now, our society has no choice but to learn how to do these things much more cheaply. Otherwise the blue sector will drag the whole country down with it.

This is part of what drives the Tea Parties: there’s a sense out there that the time for careful, limited reform is past. We need a crowbar, not a scalpel, to fix the blue beast.

It’s all the same point, expressed differently on either side of the Atlantic.

In the banking sector and in the public sector alike, limits of risk-management and common-sense responsibility have got lost in a sea of complexity. And accountability has spiralled out of control.

Back to manageable family values?