The riots that have recently erupted on Greek city streets are a result of years of undisciplined government spending, which created an entitlement mentality that is now reacting violently to the prospect of cutbacks. But the finances of Greece and many other European countries are in shambles and austerity measures must be enacted- riots or not. If Europe is to be prosperous in the years ahead, a new approach based on spending restraint and fiscal responsibility is needed. Unfortunately, Europe’s political leaders haven’t gotten the message. Instead, too many continue to engage in a contest to see who can devise the silliest and most wasteful programs.
The “winner” of this competition is Antonio Tajani, the European Union commissioner for enterprise and industry. Tajani recently announced that all European citizens hold a “right to be tourists,” prompting the EU to declare vacationing a human right. Under Tajani’s plan, access to this new “right” will be ensured by a program of subsidies, through which the EU will help cover the costs of vacations for young people, the elderly and people with low incomes.
By the time it is fully implemented, this program will cost hundreds of millions of Euros annually. This waste of money during a fiscal crisis is distressing. But what is most disturbing is that it reveals how the soft paternalism of an ever-growing government can gradually remove ever-more decisions from the sphere of individual choice, placing them in the hands of bureaucrats who think they know better than we do what will make us happy.
We all have numerous options for how to spend our recreation dollars. Some might like to go on vacation, others might prefer to buy tickets to see our favourite sports team, eat out more often, expand our cable package, and so on.
A normal person would think that because each of us would rank the desirability of these choices in a different order, it makes sense to leave money in people’s hands and allow them to make the choices that suit them best. But the architects of this proposed European vacation policy are not normal people- they are tireless busybodies who have decided to put a thumb on the scale in this decision making process by promising to pay people to choose one option – tourism—instead of some other priority.
Consider Tajani’s explanation for his new policy: “Travelling for tourism today is a right. The way we spend our holidays is a formidable indicator of our quality of life.”
Even if this is true in general, it will not always be true in particular cases. What if somebody doesn’t like travelling? What if he prefers building model trains? If he is free to make his own choice, that’s what he’ll do. But if you tax his model train money away and promise to give it back to him – if he uses it for a vacation, the power of the state has been used to lead the individual to make a choice that may make “people” in general more satisfied, but not this person, who will be worse off than when he was left alone.
If a government is worried that people are longing for vacations but can’t afford to go, they would be better off taking the money they plan to use on “tourism subsidies” and give it directly to their targets, in cash. If a vacation really is what would make these people happiest, that’s what they’ll use their money for. If buying opera tickets, eating at a nice restaurant or just buying the fancy ketchup at the grocery store will improve their lives more, they’ll do that instead. All of this would still be a bad idea- Europe simply can’t afford any new spending. But this policy would at least let people choose to spend money on things they want, instead of using taxes and manipulative subsidies to get people to buy one luxury good even when they would prefer something else.
The new European “right to tourism” shows that if left unchecked the nanny state can grow to the point that it tells people what to do with their leisure time and recreational dollars—hardly a core function of government. At “best,” it will be a waste of money when Europe is already going broke; at worst, it will create another entitlement that future Greeks may decide they’ll need to riot over.