The admirable Seth Lipsky of The New York Sun, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and the (English-language) Jewish Forward, seems to be the first American commentator since Walter Lippmann to recognize the prescience, in post–World War II matters, of Charles de Gaulle. He was referring especially to de Gaulle’s recommendation of a restored gold standard as de Gaulle and his chief economic adviser, Jacques Rueff, feared what would happen to the world’s currencies if they were valued only in relation to one another.
Their fear was not misplaced; the U.S. dollar, euro, and yen are all engaged in wholesale inflation, thinly disguised by phony calculations of domestic inflation and by relatively stable relationships between one another, because they are in almost free fall together, like three mountain climbers all sliding down the face of the peak and toward a hard landing.
As Ron Paul pointed out to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke a few weeks ago, in eight years the U.S. dollar has lost 85 percent of its value opposite an ounce of gold, and this is not the roseate picture revealed by official inflation figures.
I am not convinced that a return to the gold standard is the answer, as gold is an impractical metal and this would confer undue economic influence on speculators, prospectors, and mining engineers. My suggestion is for a composite standard: one-third gold, one-third oil, and one-third a basic consumer-price, essential-spending, basket. Any such yardstick will reveal the distressing crash of the value of units of currency and anything producing a fixed yield: It is a tale not only of scandalous official profligacy and failed stewardship of the value of savings and many categories of investment, but also of official dissembling, misinformation, and pusillanimity.
It is of a piece with the great drive of Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush to swallow the free lunch of expanded family home ownership (and payoffs to the building trade unions and residential-real-estate speculators), by ordering and legislating pelagic immensities of non-commercial (i.e. worthless) residential mortgages.
Charles de Gaulle was born in Lille in 1890, to the family of a monarchist schoolteacher. De Gaulle was a Flaubertesque haut bourgeois, as well as an officer of the French army when it was rivaled only by the German army as the greatest in the world, and was unrivaled as the most storied army of all. He was imbued with the middle-class concept of the value of savings, frugality, pay-as-you-go. To him, greatness and security could never be bought or sustained on the installment plan. And mere politicians, whom he considered a lesser breed swimming in a sticky fondue of moral weakness and opportunism, could never be trusted to resist the temptation to pander, devalue, or seek short-term gain.
De Gaulle’s farsightedness was not confined to national projections of household economics; he also warned of the dangers of Euro-integration. He was the chief architect of the Franco-German friendship treaty of 1963, and — as a veteran of the terrible hecatomb of the Battle of Verdun and a World War I prisoner of war of the Germans, as well as the founder of the Free French in World War II — he knew as well as anyone the horrors of the centuries-long conflict along the Rhine. He also favored a common market and the end of violent ancient rivalries among the many European nationalities. But he always saw a homogenized, centralized Europe as a dangerous fantasy. He believed that a Continental interest, composed of as many as 20 or 25 languages and cultures, would be only an alphabet gruel, blended and stirred by faceless bureaucrats from the little countries, and not representing any real popular interest at all.
He thought that the original Common Market of France, West Germany, Italy, and Benelux could be used by France, effectively maneuvering between the U.S. and the USSR, and between Germany and the Russians, to project and amplify France’s — and, more particularly, his own — influence. Up to a point, while the U.S. was mired in Vietnam, and before European Communism became too enfeebled to challenge the West (which de Gaulle also foresaw), he was correct. But he believed that an unlimitedly accessible Europe would become an incoherent Tower of Babel, governed by bureaucratic intermeddlers in the name of feckless politicians, and liable to excessive outside influence, including from the U.S.
He would never have subscribed to the romantic fraud that Europe, with its many nationalities standing on each other’s shoulders, could have resumed its place as the political epicenter of the world that it had forfeited when it trooped deliriously off to war in the summer of 1914. But it is the merest speculation to suppose that even de Gaulle would have foreseen that an over-united Europe would so soon degenerate into a dyspeptic, demographically dwindling, Islam-raddled lumpen mass of welfare addicts. From 1965, when he was reelected president of France, to now, the reproductive rate of native Europeans of traditional stock has declined by about 40%, to levels that will lead to an extinction as easily plotted as that of the American carrier pigeon (which darkened the skies in its numbers in Audubon’s time, and passed into posterity at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1922). GDP growth in Europe in the first three post-war decades fell by over 50% over the last three. As Bret Stephens recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal: “In 1973, Europeans worked 102 hours for every 100 worked by an American. By 2004 they worked just 82 hours for every 100 American ones.”
All the proud, confident predictions of Europe as a world force have mercifully almost ceased. Britain and France ran out of air-to-ground missiles to fire at Qaddafi after ten days; the turbines in the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle don’t work as well as did those in the great liner Normandie, which took the Blue Riband in 1935. Britain is building two aircraft carriers, but is uncertain of having sufficient funds to put aircraft on them. The last European military gasp was Tony Blair’s contribution of 20,000 men to the Iraq War.
Even de Gaulle would not necessarily have foreseen that a united European currency zone would accept insolvent countries (which had not supported a hard currency for 3,000 years) being overpaid on entry based on false prospectuses. No one could see that, in 2011, migrant workers, after twelve weeks of evading police, would enjoy the same benefits as permanent workers; that artists would, for 70 years, receive a share in the resale profits on sales of their work; that, if a small enterprise laid off one of six workers, all six must reapply for work.
The worst nightmares of de Gaulle and other Euroskeptics have been exceeded. The United States carried the luxury-goods industries of France and Italy and the engineered-products industries of Germany on its back for decades, but it will not and cannot do it anymore. Decline is reversible; more complicated is a death wish as thoroughly installed in the attitudes and practices of whole peoples as that of most of Europe.
If Europe cannot spark a demographic renewal, with a work force comprising fully half the people, flexible labor markets, tax rates that encourage savings and investment, an end to stealthily galloping inflation, and a reactivation of the economic and military muscle that alone confer credibility, it will quietly perish.
The leaders of Britain, Germany, France, and Italy, however unlikely they may be, should put the hopeless and dangerously misguided European Commission in trusteeship; put Giscard d’Estaing’s cynical monstrosity of a constitution to the shredder; send the dirigiste apparat that regulates everything down to the supermarket display of bananas and the size of condoms, packing; stop propping up defaulting countries and support the lending banks instead; and let all member states keep the common market and cede only as much jurisdiction as they wish.
Not to be forgotten or forgiven prematurely is the blindness of American policymakers, who, except for Nixon and Reagan, bought into this Euro-fable. The only cause for political optimism Obama’s floundering America now has is a glance at how much farther down the well Europe is.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, and, just released, A Matter of Principle. He can be reached at [email protected]. This dispatch first appeared in the Natinoal Review.