Anatomy of an idea. The Western model. Interview to Bill Emmott

«The West should not forget that its success is very recent – truly, on a widespread basis, only since 1945 – and that it has been based on a harmonious balance between openness, which brings new ideas and scientific progress, and equality, which maintains social cohesion by making all adult citizens know they are full participants in progress and have a voice in decision-making and accountability».

Openness and equality, these are component parts of West and open society's idea, analysed by British journalist and The Economist's ex director Bill Emmott in his new book, The Fate of the West (Profile Books Ltd), published in various countries – UK, US and Japan – and in Italy by Marsilio Editori with the title Il destino dell'Occidente and translation of Elena Cantoni and Rachele Salerno.

Bill Emmott, could you tell us about distortion of democracy, in other words dictatorship of majority on one side and tyranny of minority (bankers lobby, trade unions, etc...) on other side?

Democracy works through competition among political ideas and among different groups in society. Just as in a market companies compete and try to become dominant, so in democracy different groups naturally compete to get a greater political voice and to win a disproportionate share of resources and/or divert public policies to their private advantage. This natural process has to be fought against by other groups and by constitutional means. But sometimes it can go so far as to damage a country badly. This is what happened in Britain when trade unions became politically dominant in the 1960s and 1970s, and it happened in the USA, UK, France and Germany in the 2000s when the financial sector became too dominant, leading to the 2008 global financial crisis.

Could a financial shock like that of 2008 occur again, with new deregulation favored by Trump administration? In your opinion, will Trump dismantle the Dodd-Frank financial reform supported by Barack Obama?

I think the Trump administration is unlikely to achieve a major dismantling of Dood-Frank. But certainly if that were to occur, then it would raise the risk of another financial crisis some time in the future.

Could European penalties to Google undermine its monopoly position?

The European Commission is right to penalise Google. But unless the Department of Justice in the US also does the same, and unless the EU Commission can keep moving fast to penalise future moves by Google, it is unlikely to end Google’s dominance.

Do you think that could defense of acquired rights harm economic progress of open societies?

I think defence of acquired entitlements – often payments such as pensions, subsidies or other benefits, but also some legal rights – harms economic progress when it preserves arrangements that made sense in past circumstances but no longer do so in modern circumstances. A good example is the entitlement to a public pension on early retirement, say at 55 or 60: this made sense when life expectancy was shorter and people at that age were unfit after a lifetime of manual labour, but it no longer makes sense when retirements last 25-35 years and people at that age are much healthier. This is why Italy spends 16% of GDP on public pensions, which starves other public services, such as education or health, of resources. That is double the OECD average.

Could labor automation be a resource or will it produce more inequality and unemployment?

Labour automation has never caused unemployment but it can increase inequality, by lowering the value of certain skills in the labour market. Such automation is essential if we are to maintain progress and be efficient, but governments need to devote resources to education and re-training of workers whose skills are thereby devalued.

Why, in your opinion, there is not in Italy a wide-ranging economic recovery?

Italy’s obstacles to economic growth are, first, rigid and excessive regulation; second, corruption at every level of administration, politics and justice, which discourages business investment; third a poorly functioning judicial system, which also discourages investment.

What will long-term implications of Brexit be for England and the rest of Europe?

If Brexit goes ahead, Britain will suffer in economic terms—though how much will depend mostly on the policies followed by whatever governments Britain elects during post-Brexit instability—and become isolated politically. For the rest of Europe, Brexit will become unimportant.

How much does absence of an European unified position count about current crises, first and foremost humanitarian one?

The migration and refugee crisis needs European countries to agree to devote a significant amount of resources both on stabilising the area of sub-Saharan Africa that is causing the people flow, and on securing European borders and processing migrant applications more efficiently. To agree to devote a lot of resources requires unity. It is disunity that leads to half-hearted, under-financed, inadequate responses.

What do you think about strategic implications of Chinese project called One Belt, One Road?

If China finances infrastructure in central Asia through to Europe it will be of great economic value. The strategic implications are less clear, but they are likely to include a greater influence for China in those regions.

In which way does Russia seek to undermine solidarity and Western alliances?

Russia uses disinformation, propaganda, cyber-war and direct financing to try to reduce support for NATO and the EU. Its biggest success has been in helping Donald Trump to become US president, which has done more than anything else to undermine solidarity and Western alliances.

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