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Making the poor pay more (and accept it)

The relationship between the United States and Russia has been conflictual since the peace of 1919, as in the name of the principle of self-determination, strongly supported by President Wilson, large portions of land were taken away from Russian control – including Poland, Finland, and the Baltic states. Later, arms race, space competition and recurrent diplomatic crises were the distinctive features of the Cold War. Finally, when communism showed its intrinsic unsustainability – dragging the Soviet Union among historical relics – the eastern enlargement of NATO has been the response to Moscow’s weakness.

However, the United States and Europe have not always been aligned in their dialogue with the Kremlin. Indeed, the fact that Europe and Russia must necessarily engage in a zero-sum game is a recent invention. It is not true that a strong Russia needs a weak Europe, nor vice-versa. A clear example is provided by the historical events between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War, when both the reign of the tsars and the European colonial empires simultaneously (and peacefully) reached their maximal extension and influence.

In light of this, blaming Germany for “having rooted its solid democracy on cheap Russian gas” means to make an intellectual distortion, judging ex-post an economic strategy that made perfect sense when it was chosen. Why would Schroeder have preferred to import gas from Algeria or from some Western ally in the Persian Gulf, if Russia is much closer, gas pipelines easier to build, and the possibility of enhancing trade with an historically relevant market for Berlin also opened up?

In other words, for an industrialized country that needs raw materials to make its firms work, minimizing the cost of energy supplies is the cornerstone of any rational economic policy. Blaming a state (or its former chancellor) that took this decision twenty years ago, of complicity with today’s enemy is a result of the same anti-historical mental process as proposing to tear down the statue of Christopher Columbus because his discovery paved the way to slave trade.

In my opinion, we are facing one of the most striking examples of the current cultural intransigence. The extension of today’s thinking to yesterday’s choices, the need to judge what has been done in the past solely in the light of the customs of the present show a generalized inability to discern and empathize, the same that underpins the removal of actors like Jonny Depp or Kevin Spacey from the sets of their respective productions on the basis of totally ungrounded accusations.

The result of such a cultural fundamentalism is that we observe an unprecedented tendency towards the standardization of ideas, which does not make a good service to the supposed freedom of speech of liberal democracies. To prevent an opinion (albeit sensible and motivated) from affecting our professional success, we refrain from exposing it to public mockery. Instead, to show we comply with the prevailing model of desirability, we personalize our social profiles with the most popular themes day by day, and never mind if that flag of support for the Ukrainian cause makes our journey from home to the workplace twice as expensive. Perhaps, we of the educated elite can afford it, even if we are not fully convinced.

But inflation is a regressive tax because the cost of living increases equally for everyone. And it is obviously different to pay 200 euros more in bills if you earn 1000 or 3000 euros a month. In this sense, it is urgent to have a clear governmental response, so that the increase in expenditure be proportionate to the income of every citizen. If breaking normal economic ties with Russia and sending weapons to Ukraine leads to a 7% increase in the price of the average consumption basket (in addition to the amount resulting from the various Covid subsidies), then it is necessary to redistribute resources, so that the less affluent be able to make ends meet. After all, it is easy to be on the side of Ukraine with abundant economic resources; it is much more difficult to be in favor of a war prolonged by our support, if this leads to a break in our living standard.

Making this argument does not mean being pro-Putin, nor against liberal values. It means standing against the concept of having the poorest pay more for these liberal values; it means supporting social cohesion within Western countries, which has already been weakened by two years of similarly inflationary and regressive health policies.

For example, it goes without saying that imposing a lockdown has very different mental and physical consequences for those who live in a villa with garden or in a small, dark apartment; that the obligation to wear a mask at work hits differently on workers who have to stay in contact with customers all day long and on white-collars that can go on smart working three times per week; that the vaccination certificates force employees, but not rentiers, to get how many doses it is commanded.

In sum, being in favor (or against) helping Ukraine or the health policies of 2020-21 does not automatically make a person better (or worse); it is the result of an individual cost-benefit analysis. Hence, it is just to try and redistribute resources in favor of those most severely affected, rather than depicting differing opinions as the enemy’s Trojan horse.

Social and moral justice are still liberal values, aren’t they?

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