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Punishment is out of all proportion to the mistake

JUST when we start to feel that slightest bit better about ourselves, what with the sun finally coming out and that elusive light at the end of the tunnel making another tentative appearance, along comes Lorenzo Bini Smaghi to dampen the mood, penning an ugly little piece in the Financial Times ticking off the Irish for daring to feel aggrieved about being saddled with the gargantuan debts of international bankers when it was us who voted for the politicians who allowed it to happen.

"If taxpayers have the right to share in decision making," the Italian born economist and member of the European Central Bank's Executive Board declared loftily, "they must also accept the consequences."

And we thought Olli Rehn was bad . . .

Hearing a committed federalist talk so enthusiastically about the will of the people is pretty rich, considering the EU wouldn't take No for an answer from the Irish on the Lisbon treaty first time round -- and wouldn't take Non or Nee for an answer either when the French and Dutch voted against the EU Constitution. Since when did Europe ever give a damn what the little people thought?

Even if it did, the idea that

being allowed to cast a vote every four or five years amounts to having a "share in decision making" is fatuous.

We don't live in a direct or participatory democracy in which every major decision has to meet the approval of all concerned. We live in a representative democracy in which we elect professional politicians to make decisions on our behalf. If they turn out to be corrupt/incompetent/stark staring mad, that doesn't mean they have carte blanche to screw us over on the grounds that we put them there in the first place.

Whatever share of decision making the individual has through voting is diluted like a single drop of water in an open sea.

What Lorenzo Bini Smaghi is saying here is equivalent to arguing that those who have the teensiest tiniest share of a publicly listed company should be personally liable for debts for billions of euro if the company folds.

The punishment is out of all proportion to the mistake, especially since we are powerless to do anything to stop politicians in time if they make decisions with which we profoundly disagree, such as signing the toxic agreement with the EU and IMF, as Fianna Fail and the Greens did last November.

Nor has much changed. Fine Gael was elected on a promise to stand up to Europe and burn the bondholders. It can wriggle out of it by claiming the manifesto position was actually more nuanced than that, but that's what we thought we were getting. Now it turns out that we won't. We're just getting more of the same. How is it the fault of the Irish people if they end up with lambs after repeatedly thinking they were getting lions?

Lorenzo got a swift riposte from former Taoiseach John Bruton, who reminded him that the ECB should look at its own culpability for the implosion of banking; but it doesn't take away the bitter taste of what he said.

Nothing could have exposed more sharply the yawning gulf between the policy makers of Europe and the ordinary people who have been most affected by the downturn. The recession has cut a swathe through family life in Ireland and other countries. Marriages have broken up, houses have been lost, people's health has suffered.

What good is there in coming along like some priggish schoolmaster to tell people with brutal, implacable logic that they have only themselves to blame because they voted for this or that politician? If nothing else, it proves that even Italians can end up thinking like Germans if they spend too long in Frankfurt.

We're not machines, whose defective parts can be discarded and replaced without feeling. We're just people.

He says we had good times. Granted, a lot of people did well for a while. They enjoyed eating out, taking foreign holidays, driving new cars. Big crime. What does any of that matter now if they and their children are permanently crushed thereafter under a mountain of debt?

There's a quasi-Victorian sensibility at work here. The wicked must pay for the wages of sin. Got cancer? Serves you right for smoking. HIV positive? You should've kept it in your pants then. Drowning in a deluge of unrepayable mortgages? You shouldn't have got so far above yourself to think you could live in a nice house. Now take the pain, peasants, and stop griping.

His argument really was as crude and distasteful as that. Voters always knew they might suffer if the ordure hit the fan, so "they should not complain when it actually happens".

Oh really? Well, here's the thing, signore. Free people have the right to complain as loudly as they damn well like -- and there's not a thing you can do about it, because that's a part of democracy too. In fact, free speech is the most sacred and inviolable part of the deal, and the only people who ever want to shut up their opponents are those who know their own arguments don't stand up.

Lorenzo's certainly don't. He says those who benefitted when times were good have to be prepared to take a hit when times turn bad. So why then does the ECB strenuously oppose any plans to make bondholders shoulder their losses? Surely they too must "accept the consequences", to quote his vindictive phraseology?

Pompous Eurocrats like Lorenzo are like the new landed gentry, gazing down patronisingly on the poor tenant farmers foolish enough to think they can manage their own affairs.

He didn't even try to hide his hubristic relish when he finally got to the main point of his Financial Times column, which was that if regulation has failed at the national level, causing grief to local taxpayers, then better just to let Europe take charge of everything and do our thinking for us.

How ironic that an argument that individual voters must take responsibility for their own part in collective decision making should culminate in a call for decision making to be taken further away from those same individuals. Whoever voted for that?

Meanwhile, here's an urgent message from Lorenzo Bini Smaghi for the wife of the famous actor who last week took out a court injunction to stop newspapers revealing he'd slept with a prostitute: It's your own fault, woman! You married him.

Sunday Independent